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Malta PM faces call to resign; aide arrested in murder probe

VALLETTA – Pressure mounted Thursday on Malta’s prime minister to resign as the fast-evolving investigation into the assassination of a leading investigative journalist struck at the heart of his government and raised questions about rule of law in the tiny EU nation.

Police arrested Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s former chief of staff this week for questioning as a person of interest in the October 2017 car-bomb murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

After languishing for two years, the investigation has moved swiftly since a Maltese businessman was arrested on a private yacht trying to flee Malta last week. The businessman, Yorgen Fenech, provided information about Muscat’s ex-chief of staff, Keith Schembri, reportedly in a bid to win immunity.

Besides Schembri, two ministers also have stepped aside.

On Thursday, 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’s justice system.

Following the resignation or suspension of three government officials linked to Muscat, 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 had already criticized “the lack of police action” following the killing and judged developments in Malta to be “a source of concern for the whole of the EU.”

Thousands of angry protesters have demonstrated for five nights outside Muscat's office demanding his resignation. In Parliament Wednesday, the opposition demanded Muscat step down on, but he refused.

Muscat refused Thursday to comment on Schembri’s arrest and other developments in the case, saying he would do so only when the investigations are over.

Both Schembri and his tourism minister, Konrad Mizzi, resigned on Tuesday, while the economy minister, Chris Cardona, temporarily suspended himself from office after being questioned by police in a related case.

Eight months before she was killed by a car bomb, Caruana Galizia alleged in her blog that a company called 17 Black Ltd., was connected to Maltese politicians.

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 Mizzi and Schembri. At the same time, Fenech was part of a group that won a concession to operate an energy company while Mizzi was energy minister.

Mizzi has always denied the connection, while Schembri said that 17 Black had been a potential client for his business group.

The officials close to Muscat who have stepped aside all deny involvement in the sensational murder that has drawn international attention.

Caruana Galizia’s family members were meeting with the Malta attorney general on Thursday to protest any plans to offer a presidential pardon to Fenech.

It would be the second presidential immunity offered in the case, after Muscat granted a suspected middleman immunity for identifying Fenech as a person of interest in the case.

Three men have been arrested for carrying out the car-bombing, but no trial date has been set. The current investigation is aimed at identifying who ordered the assassination.