The Malta Independent 14 July 2020, Tuesday

Yorgen Fenech knew about early 2017 general election in December 2016 - Inspector Kurt Zahra

Wednesday, 24 June 2020, 09:28 Last update: about 19 days ago

Yorgen Fenech knew about the early 2017 general election from as early as December 2016, investigator Kurt Zahra told the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder on Wednesday.

Zahra, who is one of the chief investigators into the case, said that this had emerged from Fenech's interrogation when he was arrested.  Fenech is accused of complicity in the journalist's murder and his name has cropped up through his once-secret company 17 Black in a number of corruption scandals.

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The timing of the 2017 general election, called a year early by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has long been questioned. Caruana Galizia herself had said that the election was planned for a year early from long before it was called on 1 May, but Muscat and his government had continually denied this.

Zahra however testified in front of the public inquiry that Fenech had known about the election from as early as December 2016.

The Labour Party went on to win the election with a commanding majority similar to that with which they had won in 2013. 

Earlier, the public inquiry also heard from Manoel Theatre Chairperson Michael Grech on how theatre director Mario Philip Azzopardi submitted a script for a play called 'Min qatel lil Daphne Caruana Galizia' to the Manoel Theatre in 2016 - before she was killed in a car bomb.

The script - and another titled "Ix-Xiħa" which depicted a blogger which Grech felt was made in the likeness of Caruana Galizia - was rejected by the Theatre, Grech said.

Azzopardi later went on to be appointed the Artistic Director of Valletta18.

The testimony comes from the public inquiry into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia which is currently ongoing. Former acting police chief Carmelo Magri and inspector Kurt Zahra are also expected to testify today.

The inquiry is led by retired judge Michael Mallia, former Chief Justice Joseph Said Pullicino and Judge Abigail Lofaro.

Follow a live commentary from the inquiry from earlier, below.

11:47: The inquiry is expected to continue behind closed doors today. We will be concluding our live blog here. Thank you for following.

11:34: The media have now been ordered to leave the courtroom. Kurt Zahra's testimony will continue behind closed doors.

11:34: Lawyer Azzopardi asks Zahra about the sim cards, bought towards the end of 2016, which had been used in burner phones utilised by the three hitmen in Daphne’s murder. Zahra says they had stopped being used after the murder. He confirms the sim card were bought in Malta.

11:33: Zahra also confims that it had emerged from Yorgen Fenech’s interrogation that Fenech had known months in advance about the early 2017 election. Zahra says Fenech had known about it since December 2016.

11:32: Caruana Galizia family laywer Jason Azzopardi now takes over the questioning. Kurt Zahra confirms that Yorgen Fenech had been informed on the terms of the presidential pardon granted to self-confessed middleman Melvin Theuma to tell all he knew about the Caruana Galizia murder. Zahra doesn’t know who informed Fenech, however.

11:30: Zahra says that an investigation into the information leaked to the hitmen about the potato shed raids is underway.

11:29: Comodini Cachia now asks about leaks in the investigation. “There were times when you were placed in danger by information which was made public,” the lawyer says. “A lot of the information [on the investigation] wouldn’t just be in the hands of the police. Security services, court experts, and so on, would have access to it,” Zahra explains. He says it was always unpleasant to find out about leaks. “For example, when it came to the potato shed raid, I remember that, while on the [police] boat [on the way to carry out the raid] I was thinking that we needed to get ashore as quickly as possible, because of the risk of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)… and then we saw our fear that information had been leak materialise in front of us, on the ground - this was very ugly.” It appears Zahra is referring to court testimony by Melvin Theuma that the Degiorgio brothers and Vince Muscat knew about the impending raid on the potato shed.

11:24: The subject now moves on to the police raid of a bank, ABLV, in Latvia last week (the bank is understood to have a link to Yorgen Fenech’s 17 Black, having been used to transfer funds to the Dubai secret company). Kurt Zahra says that it was possible that an investigative team would be set up to look into this, but that he would not be informed on it. The board asks if Ian Abdilla - who was replaced as ECU chief yesterday - would have known about this, with Zahra agreeing that he would have.

11:15: The inquiry board asks Zahra whether Europol’s involvement in the investigation is as part of a Joint Investigate Team (JIT). Zahra replies in the negative. He says there is a liaison officer who coordinates with Europol., assistant commissioner Michael Mallia. The structure of the task force, however, means that everything seen by one set of investigators is seen by the others, Zahra says.

11:13: The inquiry board now ask about previous unsolved car bombings. “As far as I know, the Daphne Caruana Galizia car bombing was the only one which was solved in Malta,“ Zahra says.

11:12: Zahra tells the inquiry board that the three hitmen charged with the car bombing didn't have very extensive criminal records, but were well-known to the police. They were being investigated on other issues which he will speak about behind closed doors, he tells the inquiry.

11:11: Lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia continues questioning Zahra. She now asks about briefings given to the prime minister and OPM officials on Daphne’s murder. Zahra says he didn’t attend such briefings. “A few times Silvio Valletta would go, other times Keith Arnaud. I can’t say for certain whether Arnaud would go with Valletta or alone.”

11:09: Zahra tells the inquiry that he felt the question asked by the press had been directed towards him, because at the time (before Fenech’s arraignment) it had been him who was interrogating Fenech. Zahra says that, from his end, he had sent the reply (to the journalist’s question) to CMRU. In the press statement published the next day by CMRU, Zahra’s reply was not included, however, he says.

11:08: Zahra is now being asked about the role of the CMRU - the police’s communications arm. This issue revolves around a question Zahra was asked by a journalist last week on whether it was true that Yorgen Fenech, two days before his arraignment, had asked to speak to Ian Abdilla about corruption and it was alleged that the ECU didn’t accept to speak to him. Comodini Cachia asks Zahra whether the CMRU any involvement in the answers given to the press, because it appears that not all questions on the matter were answered.

10:56: Zahra also confirms that he would always answer to, and inform of any developments, Silvio Valletta and Lawrence Cutajar.

10:56: Zahra tells the inquiry board that, during the 11 days after the arrest of Melvin Theuma, Lawrence Cutajar had always been present during meetings. The Commissioner had also been updated about the raid on the potato shed in Marsa in December 2017 (which led to the arrest of Alfred and George Degiorgio and Vince Muscat), he confirms.

10:54: Zahra says the police chief would not be involved in operations such as searches, inquiries and sweeps. He would be frequently updated about them, however.

10:54: Therese Comodini Cachia asks about the role the police commissioner had within Kurt Zahra’s unit, and how the police commissioner participates within it. "Its more supervisory level. You give updates, and, if you need tools you approach him, you do so through your direct superior - at the time Silvio Valletta. The investigations and interrogations would be done by us, the commissioner would be more for direction,” Zahra replies.

10:49: The inspector is now asked whether, on the occasions he had read Daphne’s blog, he had thought she had been “treading on dangerous ground” because of her stories. Zahra responds that, as a reader, he didn’t think Daphne could be killed in a car bomb. The car bombings are the time had been gang-related, he says.

10:47: Asked whether he had ever been involved in the providing of police security for Daphne, Zahra replies in the negative.

10:46: Zahra says that, at the beginning of the investigation in October 2017 - and until the three executors of the crime were arraigned the ECU was not directly involved in the investigation as part of the task force. The ECU had joined the task force after Melvin Theuma's recordings were revealed. The investigation also covered clandestine lotto and money laundering, so the ECU were spearheading the investigation into these aspects, Zahra says.

10:45: Kurt Zahra’s testimony continues. He says Daphne’s blog was “part of her life.” Experts were appointed to analyse the blog, and the cyber-crime and Economic Crimes Unit (ECU) were tasked with investigating the stories she had posted on it.

10:44: Zahra tells the board that, after Daphne’s assassination, a task force was set up with the Maltese Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) and the FBI. The focus of the task force was on Daphne’s homicide originally, but this has now broadened.

10:43: Inspector Kurt Zahra is now asked about information sharing. He says that, untill recently, there was no structure for information sharing in place. Inter-departmental sharing was done on an ad hoc basis. There now has been an analysis unit set up which has a holistic overview of all investigations, Zahra tells the inquiry. The unit is headed by Malcolm Bondin.

10:41: Judge Abigail Lofaro asks Zahra to clarify who his superior was at the time of Daphne’s murder. Zahra says there was no superintendent at the time, so he answered to assistant commissioner Kevin Farrugia, deputy commissioner Silvio Valletta, and to police chief Lawrence Cutajar.

10:40: Zahra says he was transferred to the homicide squad to assist inspector Keith Arnaud after a spate of car bombings. His immediate superior is superintendent Raymond Cassar, Zahra says.

10:39: Zahra tells the inquiry board that he has been in the police force for 17 years, progressing up the ranks from constable. He gives an overview of his career. He says he dealt with transnational organised crime and property crime originally.

10:33: Carmelo Magri’s testimony now concludes. Inspector Kurt Zahra will take the stand next.

10:33: The inquiry board goes on to ask Magri about Montenegro and about the 17 Black Dubai company, which was owned by Yorgen Fenech. Magri says he knows nothing about the Montenegro scandal and was not involved in the deal with Enemalta. Inquiry board member judge Abigail Lofaro asks whether Ian Abdilla would know about the deal. Magri affirms that Abdilla would know.

10:31: Comodini Cachia continues questioning Carmelo Magri. She mentions several off-shore companies, including 17 Black, Macbridge, MayorTrans and Lazar. On 19 April, 2018, Comodini Cachia says the Maltese police as well as Europol had asked the United Arab Emirates for information about the off-shore companies. But the UAE did not comply, not even to Europol’s request. She asks Magri why the UAE was not cooperating, but Magri says he is unable to answer. Asked who could shed light into this, Magri says “I think nobody is better-placed to answer than Ian Abdilla.”

10:27: Carmelo Magri says he is unable to answer such a question.

10:23: “If this is a person who needs protection during the election, doesn’t she also need one after the 2008 election, if her writings are controversial?” Comodini Cachia asks.

10:22: Caruana Galizia family lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia asks if the police patrol would pass near Daphne’s house during the time when John Rizzo was police chief, to ensure all looked ok. “That’s when it started,” Carmelo Magri replies.

10:21: Former acting commissioner and deputy commissioner Carmelo Magri now takes the witness stand. He will be testifying about the fixed point and security patrols near Daphne’s home.

10:19: Peter Caruana Galizia tells the inquiry that at 57 seconds into the video, the date and time stamp of the camera which was filming Muscat can be seen. It indicates that Muscat was in Sliema at 3:13pm on 16 October 2017 - around the time the car bomb exploded. Silvio Schembri and Chris Cardona were there too. He says that his son, Matthew Caruana Galizia, had found the footage after some research.

10:17: Peter Caruana Galizia takes the witness stand. A video of a press event which took place on 16 October is submitted. The video - which can be seen here - shows that, at the time that the bomb which killed Daphne exploded, Joseph Muscat was at the press event.

10:13: Retired Chief Justice Joseph Said Pullicino says that if the video is to be exhibited to be preserved, this would be allowed. He says, however, that it is not permitted that the inquiry board substitute the role of the compilation of evidence against Yorgen Fenech.

10:11: Peter Caruana Galizia says that there is a video filmed by TVM which shows that Keith Schembri was in fact not with Joseph Muscat when he got to know about Daphne’s murder.

10:08: Daphne’s widower, Peter Caruana Galizia, requests to testify about how former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri was informed of his wife’s murder. Schembri had testified, during the compilation of evidence against Yorgen Fenech, that he had been with former PM Joseph Muscat and former OPM communications head Kurt Farrugia when he heard the news.

10:05: Michael Grech's testimony has ended. He steps off the witness stand.

10:04: Therese Comodini Cachia asks the witness the elaborate on what he said was the “socio-political situation” at the time the first play script - “Min qatel lil Daphne Caruana Galizia” - was submitted by Mario Philip Azzopardi.

10:03: “The blogger character was an incidental one but I felt that it was not ideal to have it in the theatre,” Michael Grech says.

10:01: Caruana Galizia family lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia asks Michael Grech if Matthew Caruana Galizia had made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in connection with the play. Grech says he is “almost certain” the script was not circulated to others.

10:00: Michael Grech goes on to tell the inquiry board about the script for the proposed “Ix-Xiħa” play which was submitted in the last year. "I saw this script. There was a character in this script, a blogger in my opinion made in the likeness of Daphne Caruana Galizia. I didn't finish reading the script. The board also made the decision to reject it... the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia is an ongoing situation and I don't think it's a good thing [to run plays about it]".

09:58: Michael Grech says that, in the past 12 months, another script, called “Ix-Xiħa”, had been submitted by Azzopardi’s theatre company.

09:57: "In the socio-political climate of Malta I felt it was not fitting to run it,” Michael Grech tells the inquiry, in reference to the socio-political climate in 2016, when the script was submitted. Grech says he didn't know how Mario Philip Azzopardi had reacted to the script being rejected, as he had not spoken to him in person.

09:55: Manoel Grech tells the inquiry that he told the CEO that he should reject Mario Philip Azzopardi’s script for the “Min qatel lil Daphne Caruana Galizia” play. "I told him, Ray, don't bother even circulating it. Inform Mario Philip Azzopardi that it was rejected,” Grech says. The Manoel Theatre board had subsequently unanimously rejected the script as well.

09:54: In 2016, Manoel Grech says he said he received a call from the CEO informing him of the submission on the play’s script by Mario Philip Azzopardi - this was of course before Daphne was murdered

09:53: Manoel Grech tells the inquiry that Mario Philip Azzopardi has submitted a script for a play called “Min qatel lil Daphne Caruana Galizia.”

09:52: Three original scripts every year had to be drawn up, according to the agreement. The scripts are presented to the Manoel Theatre, with the theatre having the right to refuse them. Typically, Michael Grech says, the script is sent to the theatre’s CEO and artistic director for first reading. The board would eventually take a decision about it.

09:51: Michael Grech tells the inquiry that, about six or seven years ago, the theatre started encouraging drama plays in Maltese, with the Finance Ministry being involved. The theatre entered an agreement with a company run by Azzopardi, with €20,000 per year allocated to such plays.

09:49: Grech is asked about a play proposed by film director Mario Philip Azzopardi on Daphne’s murder.

09:46: The judges have entered the courtroom. The first witness - Michael Grech - is called in.

09:37: Reminder: Inspector Kurt Zahra is one of the inspectors prosecuting Caruana Galizia suspected murder mastermind Yorgen Fenech. Magri meanwhile already testified once last week - you can find his testimony here.

09:36: Former acting police chief Carmelo Magri, inspector Kurt Zahra, and Manoel Theatre chairperson Michael Grech are expected to testify today.

09:35: Good morning. We are back in court for the continuation of the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder.

 

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