The Malta Independent 7 August 2020, Friday

Joseph Muscat, denial after denial, 17 Black: Six key take-aways from yesterday’s court session

Albert Galea Tuesday, 23 June 2020, 07:28 Last update: about 2 months ago

Monday saw what was perhaps the most awaited witness testimony of the year, with the former Prime Minister’s long-time Chief of Staff Keith Schembri taking the stand in the compilation of evidence against Yorgen Fenech.

Fenech stands charged of being complicit in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, but it is a case where a variety of figures have been mentioned – including Schembri.  In fact, a raft of allegations had been levelled against Schembri in previous sittings.

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As the dust slowly settles for now, The Malta Independent analysed the day’s proceedings – extracting the six key take-away points from the eight-hour long court session, and its aftermath during the day.

1 - Joseph Muscat instructed Schembri to call Yorgen Fenech the night before his arrest

The revelation that it was former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat himself who instructed Schembri to call Yorgen Fenech the night before his arrest to try and convince him not to leave the country was the one which elicited shocked murmurs in the courtroom.

"Fenech sent me a message that there are the Times right behind him - today I know that's because of Ivan Camilleri's messages", Schembri testified. He added that he received a telephone call at around 9pm that they had information that Fenech was trying to leave the country.

He said that he was told to try and convince him not to leave the country - after which he called Fenech and spent 24 minutes talking to him.

He said that Fenech had told him that he was only going to take his boat to Italy, to which Schembri had said that it wasn't necessarily the time to do that. Fenech replied however that his lawyer had said it was fine to do so as he wasn’t under arrest. "He [Fenech] said, okay I will think about it", and that was that, Schembri said.

Schembri did not initially say who had given him the instruction to call Fenech, but later said that it was in fact the Prime Minister himself who had given him the order.

This was on the night of 19 November 2019. Fenech would be arrested on his boat in Maltese waters only hours later, at 5:30am the next morning.

2 - ‘Definitely not’ – Keith Schembri denies practically everything…

It’s the statement that was probably most used in his testimony, as Schembri denied every single allegation which connected him with the murder.

He denied being the mastermind behind the murder; he denied paying money for the murder; he denied calling Kenneth Camilleri and ordering him to kill Melvin Theuma; he denied passing a letter to Fenech after the businessman had been arrested; he denied giving a document to doctor Adrian Vella to pass on to Fenech; he denied ever attempting to arrange bail for the three alleged hitmen; and he denied passing information about the investigation to Fenech.

He also denied setting up a meeting with Johann Cremona – a business associate of Fenech’s and a confidant of Theuma’s – stating instead that it was Cremona who had requested a meeting.  Schembri testified that the meeting lasted some 10 minutes and was about the gaming sector, and that he had merely asked whether Cremona had been in contact with Fenech as of late.

This does not tally with Cremona’s testimony last week: Cremona testified that it was Schembri who had called him directly to ask for the meeting, and that the meeting lasted closer to an hour.  Cremona had testified that Schembri seemed visibly worried about Fenech.

In spite of these denials however, Schembri is not out of the figurative woods: the prosecution at the beginning of the sitting said that they could not exclude criminal proceedings being taken against him related to the case.

3 - Except for knowing who 17 Black belongs to

A big surprise was in actual fact was when Schembri actually went against something he had long denied: he said that he knew that 17 Black belonged to Yorgen Fenech.

17 Black was a secretive company which was set up in Dubai. It was listed as a target client for Tillgate and Hearneville – the Panama companies of Schembri and former Minister Konrad Mizzi – and slated to give the equivalent of €5,000 every day to the two companies.

Schembri has always denied knowing that the company belonged to Fenech, simply saying that it was included in his “draft business plan”.

However, in court, he testified that he knew that 17 Black belonged to Fenech and had listed the company as one of 20 target clients because he was good friends with Fenech and wanted to do business with him when he left the political scene.

It is pertinent to note: the only known target clients of Schembri’s company are 17 Black and another company called Macbridge – the owner of which remains unknown.

Schembri also did not mention exactly how he knew of 17 Black or the identify of its owner. Nobody in public knew who the company belonged before a Times of Malta and Reuters investigation revealed Fenech as the owner in November 2018.

Schembri did give some details which led to him setting up a trust in New Zealand and a company in Panama; he said that he had a trust at Bank of Valletta but was informed that the PN had gotten to know about the amount of money in it.  He said that BOV could not ensure that there hadn’t been any leaks, which is when he lost trust in Maltese banks in general and moved his structures overseas.

Setting up a company – which was needed for the trust – in Panama was simply a matter of convenience – Schembri said that it was the jurisdiction where he could set up a company quickest.

4 - Yorgen Fenech, the PN, and thousands in apparent funding

Schembri testified that he had attended some events at Fenech’s ranch, and noted that he had seen Silvio Valletta amongst others present.

However more eye-catching was his testimony of what Fenech once told him. Schembri said that Fenech had told him that Opposition Leader Adrian Delia had asked Fenech for 50,000 to not get David Casa elected in the 2019 MEP elections.

Casa was a PN candidate in the election having already been a serving MEP.  He won his seat again the election, and remains one of the biggest advocates for criminal steps to be taken against the corrupt.

Schembri also said that Fenech had told him that Pierre Portelli – whom he erroneously referred to as the PN’s Secretary General – would pick up 20,000 from him at the end of every month, adding that he had once spotted him at Portomaso.

This is a repetition of a testimony Melvin Theuma gave last week.  Theuma told the public inquiry into the murder – an entirely different set of proceedings – that Fenech had told him that Fenech had offered money to the PN to stop Casa from being elected.

5 - Denials all around

The denials on Monday were not simply reserved for Schembri; practically every third party mentioned by Schembri in his testimony denied what Schembri said in court.

PN leader Adrian Delia had already denied the offer for Casa not to be re-elected when Theuma said it in the public inquiry in a sworn affidavit, but again issued a denial. A spokesperson for the party also told The Malta Independent that they had never received 20,000 from Fenech or anyone else on a monthly basis.

Pierre Portelli issued a similar denial, uploading a picture of a sworn declaration in which he denied having ever been offered or received any money to mount a campaign against David Casa.

MaltaToday managing editor Saviour Balzon also issued a denial, when Schembri testified that Balzan knew about the date of a major police raid related to the case.

Former Times of Malta journalist Ivan Camilleri also denied Schembri’s testimony.  Schembri testified that Camilleri had tipped Fenech off about his impending arrest. Camilleri denied this, and noted how Schembri and his former employer were following the same “lies”. In response, the Times issued a statement saying that Camilleri knew full well why he was sacked, standing by their decision to terminate the journalist’s employment for “gross misconduct”.

The only third-party not to deny Schembri’s testimony was actually Joseph Muscat.  The former Prime Minister, as of Monday night, had not issued any statement addressing Schembri’s testimony, in particular that he had instructed Schembri to phone Fenech the night before his arrest.

6 - Kenneth Camilleri refuses to testify

While Keith Schembri was no doubt the most awaited witness of the day – if not arguably, of the whole year – Kenneth Camilleri – known in the recordings as ‘Kenneth from Castille’, was also set to testify.

Like Schembri, he was told that the prosecution could not exclude criminal proceedings being opened against him – but unlike Schembri, Camilleri chose not to testify as a result.  This is resulting from a standard procedure; given the fact that the prosecution may still open criminal proceedings against him, Camilleri was given the choice on whether to testify or not.

Camilleri was a member of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s security detail.  He was mentioned more than once by Melvin Theuma in his testimonies, with the middleman saying that he had met Camilleri in order to arrange bail for the three alleged hitmen.

It is unclear on whose behalf Camilleri was meeting Theuma – if anyone – in order to arrange this bail.  In his testimony, Schembri denied that he had dispatched Camilleri. What we do know is that the bail in question never materialized.

The case will continue in around six weeks, on 30 July. Schembri will definitely be back in court in the future – he is yet to face cross-examination from the parte civile and Fenech’s defence team; but the person to testify next is expected to be the family doctor Adrian Vella.

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