Malta: Dismantling the Mafia State

It’s two years since Daphne Caruana Galizia, the best investigative journalist in Malta, was killed by a car bomb. She had been using the huge leaks of financial data in the ‘Panama Papers’ to track down suspicious dealings by members of the Maltese government, and she was getting too close for comfort.

At first the assassins planned to shoot her at her home, through a window where she often sat while working at her laptop, but in the end they decided on a car bomb. They bought it from Maltese gangsters (who probably got it from the Italian mafia), and planted it under the driver’s seat of her car. They triggered it remotely as soon as she got in, and there wasn’t much left.

The actual killers were arrested in December 2017, but they did not reveal who ordered the hit. Fast forward two years, and a spaniel called Peter, a police sniffer dog at Malta’s Luqa airport, raises the alarm. He has smelled something different in the bags of a passenger bound for Istanbul. When they are opened, they turn out to contain 233,000 euros (US$ 260,000) in cash.

That’s twenty times the maximum amount you can take across a border without declaring it, so the cash is confiscated. The police then trace it to Melvin Theuma, part-time taxi-driver, full-time operator of a numbers racket, and fixer to the rich and the low-lifes alike. When they search his home, they find more than 2 million euros in cash.

Theuma is arrested on the following day, Nov. 14, by the Malta police’s economic crimes unit – and he starts singing like a canary. He was the middleman in setting up the contract killing of Caruana Galizia in 2017, he says, and he will name names in return for an amnesty on all charges against him and ‘protection.’

He got the amnesty, but ‘protection’ from whom? The moment he was arrested, Theuma asked for lawyers – and the two lawyers he requested were both members of parliament for the opposition Nationalist Party who have been accusing the incumbent Labour government of corruption. Both refused to represent Theuma, but he clearly knew that he was going to need help at the political level.

Next thing you know, Malta’s richest man, Yorgen Fenech, leaves the island on his yacht after he is tipped off that Theuma has identified him as the man who paid to have Caruana Galizia killed. He is arrested at sea and brought back to Malta, and he starts to sing too.

Fenech has large property and gambling interests in Malta, and he has friends in high places. His tip-off came from Keith Schembri, the chief of staff to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who Fenech now claims was the real mastermind of the Caruana Galizia murder. In return for a pardon, Fenech will tell all he knows – but Muscat’s cabinet refuses to make that deal. Curious.

Schembri resigns and is briefly arrested, but he is soon released without charge. Fenech says “If I go down, Schembri goes with me.” Prime Minister Muscat announces that he will step down , but only after the investigation is completed. Hmm.

It’s a great plot for a crime novel, but why should we be interested?

Malta was once strategically important because it sits in the choke-point between the Eastern and the Western Mediterranean, south of Sicily and north of Libya, but that doesn’t matter much in a globalised world. It’s a financial hidey-hole for ‘high-net-worth individuals’, and the diving is good, but really, what’s the point of all this?

The Maltese live in a part of the world where corruption, frequently accompanied by violence, is the norm, and where even governments are often controlled by the crooks. You can certainly see echoes of that tradition in the current events in Malta, but in fact Malta’s state institutions are mostly working as they should to clean up the mess – and the credit for that goes to the European Union.

The EU, despite the delusions of Britain’s Brexiters, is not mainly an economic organisation. It was created in the 1950s, after two devastating world wars that began in Europe, to prevent any return to that catastrophic past. Economic integration is part of the strategy, but the bigger part is that the EU protects and promotes democracy and the rule of law in all its members.

That’s why the nascent ‘mafia state’ in Malta is being exposed and dismantled. The EU has no legal power to give orders to the Maltese government, but EU membership is so important to Malta economically, strategically and even culturally that an expression of strong disapproval by Brussels has almost the force of law in Valetta.

An EU parliamentary delegation visited Malta early this month, and said that Joseph Muscat’s reasons for postponing his resignation until mid-January are “not convincing.” He’s still toughing it out, but he WILL have to resign from the prime ministership next month, and the various suspects WILL get fair trials in due course. And justice will probably be served in the end.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).’

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