Revelations by Times of Malta last week showed former prime minister Joseph Muscat was in a WhatsApp group with his chief of staff Keith Schembri and 17 Black owner Yorgen Fenech.
Talk about whisky, wine and food were reportedly on the menu in this chat group.
While having these intimate chats in private, Muscat claimed in public that the answer as to whether Fenech owned 17 Black was out of his hands.
The company, set up in the United Arab Emirates, is viewed as one of the potential motives behind journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, for which Fenech stands accused along with three suspected triggermen.
‘The facts will be determined from investigations’
Fresh on the back of Times of Malta and Reuters exposé about Fenech owning 17 Black, Muscat sought to distance himself from the matter, citing an ongoing magisterial inquiry.
As Muscat was aware, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where 17 Black was set up by Fenech, has been accused of being uncooperative when it comes to requests for information about financial crimes.
“The first thing that needs to be done is for the facts to be determined. The facts will be determined from investigations. They are not determined by me,” Muscat said at the time (pictured above).
Seven months earlier, Schembri had already admitted to having “draft business plans” with 17 Black after Times of Malta exposed an e-mail showing the OPM chief of staff, along with former energy minister Konrad Mizzi, were going to receive up to $2 million from Fenech’s company in a single year.
“I do not get involved in his business affairs. I am informed that whenever Mr Schembri was asked by the authorities, he gave all the information he was asked for. I will await the results of the inquiries and investigations that took place,” Muscat said when questioned in November about Schembri’s plans.
‘This is a matter for an inquiry’
Muscat continued to stall when asked the question: “Why not just ask your right-hand man what his plans were with 17 Black and who owns it?”
The former prime minister dismissed the questions as being frivolous.
“This is a matter for an inquiry, not something to ask out of curiosity,” he said.
At this stage, Muscat would have already known Fenech was a person of interest in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.
Muscat has claimed that he only invited Fenech to his birthday party a few months earlier upon advice by the Malta Security Services.
“After consultations with the Malta Security Services, it was decided that Yorgen Fenech and Mrs Fenech should not be excluded from the list of invitees for the prime minister’s birthday party, for which the couple attended briefly,” a spokesman for Muscat said about the party following Fenech’s arrest in November 2019.
During the party, Fenech gifted Muscat with three bottles of Pétrus, a premium Bordeaux red wine that retails for thousands of euros.
The vintages of the bottles were especially significant for Muscat. One of the bottles was a 1974 vintage, the prime minister’s birth year, while the other two bottles – both 2007 vintages – mark the year Muscat’s twin daughters were born.
‘I will not be commenting about 17 Black anymore’
As the police closed in on Fenech and self-confessed murder-middleman Melvin Theuma, Muscat sought to shut down any further questioning about 17 Black from the media.
“I will not be commenting anymore [about 17 Black]. I have answered all the questions I needed to answer. I have nothing else to add.
That same month, both the Prime Minister and his chief of staff left the WhatsApp group they shared with Fenech. Muscat said on Saturday he left the chat after it remained “inactive” for quite some time.
Their exits from the chat coincides with Times of Malta revealing how a “prominent businessman” (Yorgen Fenech) was the prime suspect in the journalist’s murder.
‘I last met Fenech a year or two ago’
As the walls closed in on Fenech, Muscat appeared uneasy when faced with questions about when he last met the murder suspect. [At least one meeting that we know of took place when Muscat invited Fenech to his January 2019 birthday party.]
“A year ago, I’m not certain… two years ago... What’s the date? November 2019. I think one year ago,” Muscat said days before Fenech's arrest.
Asked if he was surprised Fenech owns 17 Black, Dr Muscat said: “Yes, if it is so... I don’t know who owns it”.
On the day of Fenech’s arrest, Muscat insisted that he was “protecting no one”, as he continued to argue that it was not for him to ask Schembri about 17 Black.
“First you told me to step down so as not to interfere [in the investigation] and now you want me to be the key investigator… I have been protecting no one… What happened in the past few hours shows no one protects anyone and there is no impunity in this country”.
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