The Malta Independent 4 December 2020, Friday

One year since Yorgen Fenech’s arrest: A year of court drama, revelations and political upheaval

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 22 November 2020, 10:30 Last update: about 12 days ago

It’s been just over a year since businessman Yorgen Fenech was arrested in connection with the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, a moment that changed the course of the country.

Journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb in October 2017. The murder shocked the nation and three men were soon after arrested and charged with carrying out the murder.

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Two years later, on 20 November 2019, businessman Yorgen Fenech was also arrested.  On that day, people awoke to the news that a boat belonging to Fenech, who at the time was already known to be the owner of the 17 Black company, was intercepted at sea by the Armed Forces of Malta and was returned to Malta.

The yacht was seized off the coast of Pembroke soon after it had left Portomaso at 5.30am. Fenech was then questioned by the police. 

Members of the press flocked to Portomaso and also to the Police Headquarters in Floriana, taking photos and trying to uncover as much information as possible. The link between the arrest and the assassination was quickly uncovered by the press.

Just a few days prior to the news of Fenech’s arrest, then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had assured a man – Melvin Theuma (photo) - that he will be given a presidential pardon in exchange for information about the mastermind behind the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Fenech had himself requested a Presidential pardon to speak out, however this request was never accepted.

The next couple of months saw a storm hit the nation. Anti-corruption protests dominated the news towards the end of November as well as in December, with large groups of protestors calling for the resignations of several prominent people in the government.

Back in 2018, it must be mentioned, emails were leaked which showed that 17 Black was at some point listed as a target client for Tillgate and Hearneville – the Panama companies that had belonged to Keith Schembri (Joseph Muscat’s former chief of staff) and former Minister Konrad Mizzi (photo below).

Mizzi had claimed that he had no association or connection with 17 Black. Schembri had said that 17 Black was included in draft business plans for his business group as a potential client, but never ended up becoming a client, “and no transactions were ever recorded with this company or with me personally.”

The PL Parliamentary Group members were bombarded with questions by the press over whether Mizzi and Schembri should have been removed from their posts, given the 17 Black target client listing. Indeed, some members of the PL Parliamentary Group were also putting pressure on them to step down.

Soon after his arrest, Yorgen Fenech resigned from the Electrogas board of directors, and also resigned from his post as director and legal and judicial representative of the Tumas Group Company Ltd, as well as other subsidiary companies.

 

17 Black Tuesday

Eventually, the government had to cave to pressure and Keith Schembri resigned as Muscat’s chief of staff while Konrad Mizzi resigned from his ministerial post on what became infamously known as 17 Black Tuesday – 26 November 2019.

Mounting pressure from the press, protestors and government ministers forced those at the top to take the aforementioned decisions. However, protestors had had enough of the situation on the islands, and due to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s actions over the years, or rather inaction on issues like the Panama Papers, and were calling for the then Prime Minister’s resignation. A very large group of protestors had gathered outside Castille and later Parliament the very day of said resignations, yelling ‘mafia’ and pelting ministerial cars with eggs.

In the middle of all this, former Minister Chris Cardona (above) had suspended himself after he was questioned by the police. He feared that he was being framed for the murder and had even written a letter to the Speaker of the House asking Parliament for protection. Schembri was also being questioned.

 

Charged with murder

Fenech was, on the last day of November 2019, charged with masterminding the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

On 1 December, in a televised speech to the nation, Muscat announced that he was to resign on 12 January giving time for the Labour Party to elect a new leader.

Despite this announcement, the protests continued, calling for Muscat’s immediate resignation, rather than drawing the process out until January. Regardless, the election took place as planned, with Robert Abela beating Chris Fearne for the PL leadership.

On 5 December, Murder suspect Yorgen Fenech had claimed in court, during a Constitutional case he had instituted to have Inspector Keith Arnaud removed from the murder investigation, that the Prime Minister's former chief of staff Keith Schembri had kept him continuously informed of progress in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation. This allegation would later be denied by Schembri.

The public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia held its first sitting in court on 6 December 2019.

Throughout the course of the compilation of evidence against Fenech, as well as through the public inquiry, more and more shocking information was revealed. Eventually, middleman Melvin Theuma testified, and it became known that he had secretly recorded many conversations he had with Fenech.

 

Links to top cops

Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar resigned soon after Robert Abela became Prime Minister. There had been calls for his resignation for many months, ever since the Pilatus Bank incident. Indeed, some of the protests towards the end of 2019 were held outside the police headquarters in Floriana.

On 19 January, former Police Deputy Commissioner Silvio Valletta confirmed that he had travelled with Yorgen Fenech to the UK in 2018, just months after he had been removed from the murder investigation. It was revealed that on 29 September 2018, he travelled to London with Fenech to watch a football match (Liverpool vs Chelsea). Valletta had said that he would have never travelled abroad with someone who he knew or thought was being investigated, and also said that he had not known of Fenech's involvement in the case. Just a few days later it was revealed that this was not the only trip the two took together, and they had travelled together for the final of the Champions League in May 2018, which was held in Kiev, Ukraine. This news resulted in the resignation of Justyne Caruana as Gozo Minister. She had been appointed to the Abela Cabinet just a few days before.

In May 2020, a lawyer who worked at the Attorney General’s Office began working for Yorgen Fenech. Charles Mercieca submitted his resignation letter on 4 May 2020, joining Fenech’s defence team on 6 May. This raised a number of concerns as to whether he was passing on information he learnt while forming part of the AG’s office to Fenech. An inquiry into the move was called. The inquiry had found that it did not appear that Mercieca ever consulted the file of the case while working at the AG’s office, since he was not involved in the prosecution of this case and that there were no relative discussions on the case with him.

 

The Montenegro scandal

Later in the year, it was revealed that 17 Black - the Dubai company belonging to Yorgen Fenech - made a profit of €4.6 million from Enemalta's purchase of a Montenegro windfarm project. Because of this, Konrad Mizzi came under fire again, and the PL Parliamentary Group had enough, voting him out on 23 June. Mizzi remains on as an independent MP.

As the compilation of evidence against Yorgen Fenech continued, Melvin Theuma continued to testify about the recordings he had secretly taken. His testimony came to an abrupt halt on 21 July, when he was rushed to hospital after what the police said was a suicide attempt. Theuma told Police Inspector Keith Arnaud, in the presence of paramedics, that his wounds were self-inflicted, Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa told the press the next morning.

Theuma, Gafa had said, was found in his bedroom with a knife in his right hand with serious wounds to his neck. He also had multiple wounds under his right-side ribs and injuries to his left wrist.

Theuma has not yet resumed testifying, and sources at the beginning of November told The Malta Independent that he is not yet 100% recovered.

 

Fenech’s claims to police

August saw some shocking testimony in court. Police investigator Kurt Zahra told the court that Fenech had told the police that Schembri had paid up to €80,000 to Theuma to fund the murder. Zahra testified that Fenech had told police it was Schembri who had wanted to 'get rid’ of Caruana Galizia and that Schembri would go almost every day to Fenech and say that Daphne Caruana Galizia needed to be killed. “Fenech however denied ever actively seeking out someone to do this,” Zahra said. Schembri, when he had testified in June, denied having any role in the murder and also said that he never passed on information to Fenech about the investigation.

Also in August, doctor Adrian Vella had admitted in court to picking up papers from the residence of former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri and passing them on to Yorgen Fenech after the latter had been arrested in connection with the murder. It had previously been reported that the message allegedly read to blame the assassination on former minister Chris Cardona. Schembri had denied this in June, saying that he didn’t write a letter nor pass one on to Vella and insisted that he had nothing to do with it.

 

In custody

In August, Yorgen Fenech, along with a number of other prisoners, went on a hunger strike after two inmates were allocated to his cell, allegedly without having been quarantined. The hunger strike, reportedly, did not last long.

On 21 September, Keith Schembri had his assets frozen after a court issued an attachment order listing 91 people and companies, including Schembri and his business partners, as well as his accountants at Nexia BT, Brian Tonna and Karl Cini (above), on suspicion of money laundering offences. It is unclear as to exactly what this is connected to. The Constitutional Court has ordered that the Criminal Court appoint an administrator for Schembri’s companies.

The Caruana Galizia family instituted their own court proceedings in October. The court slapped a €5 million garnishee order on Electrogas and companies owned, partially or entirely, by Yorgen Fenech. The development followed a claim for compensation filed by the Caruana Galizias. In November, the court said that it struck off around 50 companies from the garnishee order, companies in which the business registry does not list alleged murder mastermind Yorgen Fenech as an involved party.

Since his arrest, Fenech’s defence team have made many requests for bail, however there were all denied.

A year on from his arrest and more information still keeps coming out about the murder through the compilation of evidence, while the public inquiry continues to reveal information about the country’s state prior to the change in prime minister.

The compilation of evidence against Yorgen Fenech as well as the public inquiry are still currently ongoing.

 

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