Thousands demonstrate in Malta as pressure mounts on prime minister over journalist's murder

Nick Squires
A protester outside the office of the prime minister in Valletta, Malta - REUTERS

Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Valletta on Sunday as pressure mounted on Malta’s prime minister to resign immediately over the investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

At least 5,000 demonstrators marched from parliament to the office of Joseph Muscat, holding up photos of the journalist, who was killed by a car bombing in October 2017, and placards reading “mafia state”, “assassins” and “blood on your hands.”

They packed into a square in front of the Auberge de Castille, a magnificent Baroque building constructed in the 16th century by the Knights of St John, who turned Malta into an island fortress after losing their fiefdoms in Jerusalem and Rhodes.

“The situation is still desperate,” read one placard, echoing warnings made by Mrs Caruana Galizia in the last blog post she wrote before she was murdered.

A national protest in Valletta calling for prime minister Joseph Muscat to resign immediately Credit: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Mr Muscat has said he will step down next month, but that has failed to appease the anger of many Maltese, who accuse him of obstructing justice to protect his political allies.

The government is in a state of “suspended animation”, paralysed by the political turmoil, said one leading newspaper, Malta Today.

The protest came after the prime minister’s former chief of staff was arrested by police over claims that he gave a lucrative phantom job to a key figure in the alleged plot to murder 53-year-old Mrs Caruana Galizia.

Keith Schembri was questioned over claims made in court that he ordered the job to be given to Melvin Theuma, the alleged middleman in the assassination.

Mr Theuma was given the job in a housing authority in May 2017, shortly after he says he was contacted to arrange the assassination, and received a monthly salary of €1,200 a month, despite never turning up for work.

Rose and Michael Vella, the parents of murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, attend the  protest in Valletta, Malta Credit: Reuters

Tony Muscat, the former head of the authority, said he had been put under pressure by the then chief of staff to hire the middleman.

Mr Schembri was last month arrested and questioned by police investigating the murder, but released without charge.

He has been accused in court of being involved in the assassination by Yorgen Fenech, a multi-millionaire businessman who has been charged with complicity in the killing.

Both men deny any involvement.

“Our main objective is still the immediate resignation of the prime minister,” said Marion Pace Asciak, a member of Repubblika, one of the main protest organisations.

“Every day that passes he is harming the credibility and the economy of Malta. Our international image is being tarnished because of him,” she told The Telegraph.

Mark Vassallo, a financial analyst taking part in the march with his family, said: “The prime minister has to step down immediately, rather than be given 42 days to clean out his filing cabinet and his Gmail account.

“Everyone is angry. The people who voted in the government feel betrayed,” he said, as protesters chanted “justice now” and “out, out”.

Sasha Vella, a 19-year-old student, said: “Muscat needs to leave now. Right now, he’s obstructing justice. The country is in a shambles. You can feel the divisions. The mood is dark, depressing.”

The prime minister has vehemently denied any involvement in the murder and has claimed credit for the police investigation making progress in the past two weeks. He has said he wants to see justice run its course.

Mr Muscat was granted a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday, despite calls in Malta for the Holy See to cancel the meeting over the deepening political crisis. The Vatican said the encounter was arranged months ago.

Three men are due to be put on trial, accused of detonating the car bomb, but questions remain over who ordered the assassination.