Saturday, April 10, 2021

Chief of staff to Malta’s ex-PM Muscat charged with money laundering


A top aide to former Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat accused of graft by journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose brutal murder rocked the nation, was charged Saturday with money laundering and fraud.

Anti-corruption campaigners hailed the prosecution of Keith Schembri as a vindication of the work of Caruana Galizia, whose death in a car bomb in 2017 sparked grief and anger across the Mediterranean island.

Schembri, who was Muscat’s chief of staff from 2013 to 2019, appeared in court Saturday charged with money laundering, corruption, fraud and forgery. He pleaded not guilty and was denied bail.

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He was among what police said would be a total of 11 people arraigned for similar offences, including a number of his associates. Charges were also being brought against 20 companies.

The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, an NGO set up after her death, said the charges were “long overdue”.

“Prosecuting Schembri today brings us a step closer to a Malta where no one is above the law. It is the country Daphne fought for and the one we all deserve,” it said.

The author of a hugely popular blog, Caruana Galizia had alleged widespread corruption within Muscat’s inner circle, including Schembri.

After she was killed, her son accused the then prime minister of presiding over a “mafia island”.

Muscat stepped down in January 2020 after major protests over his handling of the probe into the journalist’s murder.

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Schembri had already resigned as chief of staff the previous November after his name was mentioned by businessman Yorgen Fenech, the main suspect in Caruana Galizia’s murder.

In September 2020, Schembri was arrested and his assets were frozen over a probe into alleged kickbacks connected to Malta’s sale of passports to wealthy foreigners.

Former opposition leader Bernard Grech, Simon Busuttil, who initiated one of the inquiries that led to the charges against Schembri, said it was a “historic turning point in our fight for justice”.

“And a confirmation that Daphne was right. Daphne, this one’s for you. We’re finishing what you started,” he tweeted.

In a Facebook post earlier this week, Schembri said he expected to face charges after an inquiry was completed into his dealings with Adrian Hillman, the former managing director of Allied Group, which owns the Times of Malta daily newspaper and other publications.

The probe was looking into claims that Schembri paid Hillman 650,000 euros ($780,000) between 2011 and 2015 through offshore bank accounts, for a deal for his company Kasco to provide machinery for a new printing press.

Schembri called the inquiry a “travesty of justice”.

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“For the establishment, the ‘crime’ I am guilty of is having formed part of Joseph Muscat’s team that led to a number of electoral victories for the (Labour) party that I love so much,” he said.

He added: “I hope that the moment will come soon when I can clear my name from all allegations that they have been trying to damage me with.”

Hillman, who is reportedly in Britain, has previously insisted he is innocent.

Meanwhile the case against Caruana Galizia’s murderers progresses.

Fenech is currently awaiting trial for the assassination, but one of three men accused of carrying out the bombing last month pleaded guilty.


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