Maltese prosecutors charge businessman in reporter’s killing

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Rose and Michael Vella hold photos of their daughter, assassinated investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, as they partecipate in a demonstration in Valletta, Malta, Friday night, Nov. 29, 2019. The family of the journalist who was killed by a car bomb in Malta is urging Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to resign, after his former chief aide was released from jail in a probe aimed at finding the mastermind of the 2017 murder. (AP Photo/Rene’ Rossignaud)

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VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — Maltese prosecutors on Saturday charged a prominent local businessman as being an accomplice to the murder of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in a 2017 car bombing on Malta.

Yorgen Fenech, a Maltese hotelier and former director of the Maltese power company, was also charged in the evening courtroom hearing with being an accomplice to causing the explosion that killed the 53-year-old reporter as she drove near her home.

He was also arraigned on a further charge: promoting, organizing or financing a group with the intention of committing a crime.

Three men early in the case were charged with carrying out the actual bombing. But it wasn’t immediately clear if ‘’the group,’’ referred to them or perhaps to others.

Magistrate Audrey Demicoli asked Fenech to enter pleas. He replied that he was pleading innocent, didn’t request bail and was remanded in custody.

Ten days earlier, Malta police stopped Fenech as he was sailing away from Malta on his yacht.

The reporter’s family has alleged that Fenech has ties to close associates of the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, including his recently resigned chief of staff.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Muscat might resign amid increasing calls by citizens on the island, including Caruana Galizia’s family, for him to step down. Muscat, in power since 2013, has said he will speak after the investigative case is complete.

“What we now expect is the prime minister to leave office and to leave Parliament,” Corinne Vella, one of the slain reporter’s sisters, told The Malta Independent after the arraignment of Fenech.

Vella also called for Muscat as well as his former chief of staff, Keith Schembri, to be “properly investigated” for their “possible involvement in Daphne’s assassination.”

Schembri quit his government post a few days earlier. He had been taken into custody for questioning but later released. Police said there weren’t grounds to hold him.

Two of Muscat’s ministers also have stepped down, including one who was questioned.

The two, along with Schembri, have said they are innocent of wrongdoing.

Caruana Galizia wrote shortly before her death that corruption was everywhere in political and business circles in the tiny EU island nation.

An alleged go-between in the bombing has received immunity from prosecution for alerting authorities to Fenech’s purported involvement.

No trial date has been set for the three men who were jailed as the alleged bombers.

Fenech’s name appeared in the leak of the millions of documents, known as the Panama Papers, three years ago.

Caruana Galizia had alleged in her blog eight months before her death that a company called 17 Black Ltd. that was listed in the documents was connected to Maltese politicians.

She never discovered who owned the company.

Later, 17 Black, a company owned by Fenech, was identified in a leaked email as a source of income for the Panama companies set up by Schembri, and one of the recently resigned ministers.

Schembri has said that 17 Black had been a potential client for his business group.

Caruana Galizia’s reporting was continued by the Daphne Project, determined to root out wrongdoing in Malta, which is a financial haven for many business figures from abroad.

The project reported last year that Malta’s anti-laundering watchdog identified Fenech as 17 Black’s owner.

Fenech has declined any comment about the alleged ownership.

Earlier in the week, senior European Union lawmakers announced an urgent mission to Malta to look into the state of the rule of law there amid questions about the independence of the island nation’s justice system.

EU lawmaker Sven Giegold said the mission’s priority “must be to investigate all potential links to the prime minister who has protected and defended these ministers for so long.”

A previous EU parliamentary mission from a year ago criticized “lack of police action” following the killing and described developments in Malta as “a source of concern for the whole of the EU.”

One of the island’s media, Malta Today, in its online edition on Saturday, published a photo of Schembri apparently posing with an alleged go-between in the bombing case, Melvin Theuma, a taxi driver who received immunity from prosecutor in exchange for providing details about the case.

It was unclear when the photo was taken.

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