The murder in Malta of the anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia has been headline news since a bomb exploded under the driver’s seat of her car in October 2017.
Seen as a violent attack on free speech in a previously peaceful EU member state, her death triggered a political earthquake that brought down a prime minister and led to major constitutional changes in the former British colony.
Three years later, justice for the widower and three sons that Caruana Galizia left behind remains uncertain. There have been no trials, and no convictions.
Three men accused of planting the bomb will not face a jury until next year. They have pleaded not guilty. In November, a 42-year-old taxi driver called Melvin Theuma, who claims to be a middleman in the murder, secured immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.
Shortly afterwards the head of one of Malta’s most successful business families, Yorgen Fenech, was charged with organising and financing the killing. He denies any involvement with the murder.
In a courtroom protected by armed guards, a magistrate has been hearing the prosecution’s compilation of evidence against Fenech. Eventually, she will decide whether he must stand trial. The millionaire has launched his own legal challenge, alleging the police investigation was unfair and that the real culprits are being protected.
Over the last few months, a welter of claims and counter claims have been aired during the court proceedings. For now, the allegations remain just that. None of the evidence has been tested under cross-examination, and Fenech’s defence team have not yet been asked for their version of events.
The most controversial revelations relate not just to the murder, but to alleged attempts to sabotage the police investigation. Fenech himself says he was continually kept informed of the most sensitive developments. And he has accused as his source the man who was, until the end of last year, the most senior adviser to Joseph Muscat, Malta’s former prime minister.
“Yorgen Fenech knew everything,” claims Matthew Caruana Galizia, the journalist’s eldest son. “He was getting a blow-by-blow account of everything that was happening in the investigation … It is a miracle that he is now in custody.”
This account is based on open pre-trial hearings and interviews with those close to the case. It is being published as part of The Daphne Project, an international reporting collaboration that includes the Guardian, Forbidden Stories, Reuters and the Times of Malta.
The taxi driver and the millionaire
The glamour of the Malta Racing Club, founded during the years of British occupation, has faded over the generations. The stone balcony from which a young Princess Elizabeth watched her cousin Pamela Mountbatten gallop to victory is crumbling. The thoroughbreds have been replaced by trotting horses, pulling drivers on sulkies. But the sport’s popularity endures.
For Theuma, as a fatherless teenager, the club was a second family. He started as a groom, before working as a scout for a bookmaker. The old betting shop still stands across the street from the Fenech family stables, overlooked by their balcony with its prime view of the track.
Fenech’s father chaired the club, while Theuma worked the stands. Eventually he set up his own unlicensed betting service, running a popular black-market lotto. He and Fenech became friends, but it was not a relationship of equals. “Melvin used to revere him,” says an acquaintance.
Theuma would run errands, fetching bread or rabbits for Sunday lunches at the Fenech ranch. In return, he was favoured with a lucrative spot for his taxi at the Hilton hotel – one of the crown jewels in the Fenech empire.
In April 2017, the cabbie has claimed, he was given a very different sort of task. As part of the evidence-gathering exercise being undertaken by the magistrate, Theuma has given his version of events. He claims he was told to seek out George Degiorgio, a man with a known criminal record, and ask him to carry out a murder. At a restaurant near the Hilton, Theuma alleges Fenech told him: “I want to kill Daphne Caruana Galizia.”
George and his brother Alfred Degiorgio, and their friend Vincent Muscat, are awaiting trial for planting and triggering the car bomb that killed the journalist. They deny the charges.
Fenech also denies any involvement with the murder. An account of what he said during the police interrogation that followed his arrest was presented to the court by the prosecution this summer. Under interrogation, Fenech claimed it was Theuma who sought out the hitmen, and Theuma who gave them the go-ahead.
The power station
Over three generations, the Fenechs have ridden the waves of new money rolling into Malta. Monaco-style tax breaks and no-questions-asked banking services are transforming the country into a millionaire’s paradise.
If the Mediterranean has an equal to the Trump dynasty, then the Fenechs are contenders for that crown. The Hilton overlooks a yachting marina surrounded by luxury apartments, all built by the family’s Tumas Group. Next door is their Portomaso tower, once the tallest building on the island, with a casino in the basement and a VIP nightclub at the top.
Singled out to take the helm at Tumas from his uncle, Fenech branched out a few years ago into a bold new joint venture – the ElectroGas Malta power company.
Also on the rise during that time was Joseph Muscat, a charismatic young politician who led Malta’s Labour party to victory in 2013. Soon after, ElectroGas won an 18-year contract with the state to supply liquefied natural gas, which is used to generate electricity. The power station venture was part of a flagship Labour policy to cut household bills.
But there were concerns. A series of bombshell revelations by Caruana Galizia, and subsequent reports, have raised questions about whether members of Muscat’s government intended to receive bribes connected to the power station contract. The claims, strongly denied, are the subject of ongoing inquiries by magistrates and the police.
During an evidence hearing in August, police said they believed the journalist was killed for what she might reveal about ElectroGas. “That’s why we say she was murdered, because of something she was going to release, not because of something which she had already written about,” said one of the detectives on the case.
It was just one week after the car bombing that leaks from the police investigation began, according to Fenech. He made the allegation in December, in a separate constitutional case he has brought to challenge the fairness of the police investigation and have the lead investigator removed.
Fenech said his information had come from an old friend who had risen to the upper echelons of Maltese politics.
A printing and recycling entrepreneur, Keith Schembri entered government in 2013 as chief of staff to Muscat. He and Fenech had been friends since school. Fenech has described their friendship as “fraternal”. Schembri would lunch at his ranch, and their families took holidays together.
From January last year until Fenech’s arrest in November, press reports suggest they exchanged about 800 messages. The two even shared an exclusive WhatsApp group with the prime minister, the prosecution told the compilation of evidence.
From the outset, Muscat had requested detailed briefings about the murder investigation. These were usually attended by Schembri and provided by the lead homicide detective on the case, Insp Keith Arnaud. The briefings continued after Fenech became a suspect in 2018, and Schembri has confirmed during questioning in the constitutional case that he did not at any point declare the friendship or recuse himself.
The briefings were improper, claims the lawyer and nationalist MP Therese Comodini Cachia, who is acting for the victim’s family.
“How could the police commissioner allow his officers to brief the prime minister on this case? A PM should not be asking the police: ‘Who are you suspecting, what evidence have you collected so far, who is a person of interest?’ Even there, why allow these briefings in the presence of his chief of staff?”
Muscat stepped down in January, saying Malta needed a “new chapter”. In an emailed statement, he said he had asked to be kept informed because the case was of “national importance”. He said most of the briefings were of a “general nature” and he described the investigation as one of the most professional ever conducted in Malta, saying he fulfilled his duties “without fear, prejudice or favour”.
Nonetheless, the amount of information Fenech claims was being passed to him is remarkable. He knew the date police planned to arrest the Degiorgios. He says he was told that his own phone was tapped, and that Theuma’s calls were also being listened to. He says he was informed when one of the three alleged hitmen offered to testify for the prosecution. He even knew the date planned for Theuma’s arrest. And he claims the information came from Muscat’s most senior aide.
“Keith Schembri was continuously informed and in a way you can say real time,” Fenech alleged at a hearing for his constitutional challenge in December. “The information was passed to me by Keith Schembri but it came from Mr Arnaud, and he used to tell me that it came from Mr Arnaud.”
Fenech also claims that while he was on bail, Schembri passed him two typewritten notes, telling him to pin the murder on someone else. Copies of the notes have been handed to police.
In late November, Schembri resigned and on the same day was taken into custody and questioned about allegations he had interfered in the case. He was released without charge. However, police have told the court they are still investigating whether the former adviser was involved in leaks or any attempted cover-up.
Schembri declined to comment. Questioned under oath in December, during Fenech’s legal challenge, he categorically denied sharing confidential information with anyone not officially briefed by police. “I never leaked anything about the case,” he told the court. He denied ever knowing when police planned to arrest Theuma, or that Fenech’s phone was tapped, or that he passed any notes to Fenech.
The lion and the mosquito
Throughout 2019, international pressure for an arrest was building. Europol, which had been helping with the investigation, was also pushing for action. Theuma and Fenech had been prime suspects since the summer of 2018, according to police testimony at the compilation of evidence. The information had gradually leaked and was now an open secret, known to journalists, politicians and the Caruana Galizia family.
“We had known what was being alleged about Melvin Theuma for months,” says Matthew Caruana Galizia. “And it reached a point where I just wanted to go into the street and spray-paint his name on a wall. Like, I wanted the world to know that he was the middleman, to just push the police into action.”
Eventually, at a meeting with Insp Arnaud, the family threatened to go public. Matthew says Arnaud asked for one more month.
Theuma has testified how he became convinced he would be made to take the fall, or be killed himself. He believed he was no match for a tycoon such as Fenech and his powerful friends. “I was hanging out with a lion, and I’m a mosquito,” he told the court. “He knows everyone, and I don’t know anyone.”
From May 2018, Theuma has claimed, he started secretly taping his friend, using a second phone set to airplane mode so it would not ring. He transferred the audio files to some USB drives and hid them in an old ice-cream tub, along with three mobile phones and some photos.
Theuma sent copies to Fenech, making it clear they would be handed to the police or opposition politicians should anything happen to him. In a note given to Fenech, he wrote: “I Melvin Theuma am providing this information that I was the middleman in the case concerning Ms Caruana Galizia. I am relaying this proof so that you will know who hired me and paid for the bomb.”
Despite the threat, the two men continued to talk. The prosecution alleges messages exchanged just before Theuma’s arrest suggest they were one step ahead of the police.
In one text, read out during the compilation of evidence, the businessman is alleged to have written: “I haven’t managed to change the date. If it were up to me nothing would happen, not now and not in a year’s time …” And later: “Be 100% sure everywhere is clean.”
When the police swooped two days early, on 14 November, the taxi driver was clutching his ice-cream tub. For days it had not left his side. It was on the passenger seat when the officers surrounded his wife’s Toyota. He had grabbed the box before stepping out of the vehicle. From then until he arrived in the interrogation room, Theuma had refused to let go.
His lawyer’s first move was to give Theuma’s box and its contents to the duty magistrate. At 3am, it was placed on a flight to The Hague, and handed over to Europol for safekeeping. Such was the concern about political interference, the lawyer insisted no evidence would be given on the record until a memorandum of understanding, offering Theuma a pardon, had been agreed. He wanted it signed by the chief of police, the attorney general and the prime minister himself.
There was resistance, and on Friday evening prosecutors said Theuma would be charged with money laundering the next day. But negotiations continued. By 10pm on Saturday the terms were agreed: Theuma was promised immunity from prosecution.
The prime minister took three days to give his approval. Sunday passed, and then Monday, when Muscat was out of the country on official business. Tuesday came and they were still waiting. Eventually, at 3pm, the prime minister signed.
The very next day, in the early hours of the morning, Fenech was arrested after trying to leave Malta onboard his yacht.
Fenech says he had no intention of escaping justice and was taking his boat to Sicily for a regular servicing. “Mr Fenech denies any involvement in the murder,” his lawyer said in an emailed statement. He described Theuma’s testimony as “replete with unreliable claims and unexplained contradictions”. He alleged, without providing evidence, that Theuma’s presidential pardon was corruptly obtained, and said a fair trial process would “continue to expose the falsity of his allegations”.
“Mr Fenech urges the most scrupulous of investigations to identify the perpetrators of this terrible crime,” the email stated. “He is confident that such an investigation will demonstrate his innocence.”
A spokesman for the police said: “Apart from the arrests and arraignments already carried out, investigations into the murder of Ms Caruana Galizia are still very active.”
Under cross examination in the challenge brought by Fenech, Arnaud said Caruana Galizia’s family had praised his work, and an internal police investigation into the leaks was ongoing.
On the evening of 21 July, Theuma was found bleeding on the floor of his safe house, with stab wounds across his body.
Photos taken that night and seen by the Guardian show he had left his supper, a plate of pasta, untouched on the kitchen table. There were trails of blood in the bedroom but no obvious signs of struggle. Questioned afterwards, Theuma told police the wounds were self-inflicted: he had intended to kill himself.
From his hospital bed, unable to speak, he was given paper. He wrote: “They are laughing at me.” On another sheet: “Yorgen disappointed me,” and: “I wish that children of Daphne forgive me.”
Matthew Caruana Galizia says: “The night that I heard Melvin Theuma had attempted suicide … it was just like being hit by a truck.” He feared the case against Fenech would collapse without its key witness. “The prosecution was resting too much on Melvin Theuma’s evidence. And it still is.”
Fenech continues to protest his innocence. By August, he will be automatically entitled to bail unless there is enough evidence to indict him. Theuma may not be strong enough to return to the witness box until after Christmas. His greatest fear is that Fenech’s well-funded legal team will find a reason to have his pardon withdrawn. If that happens, the taxi driver could be prosecuted.