The riddle of the car bomb and the lucky gambler

Investigating the assassination of a Maltese journalist has been a masterclass in legal ping-pong

John Sweeney

Some people collect butterflies, some postage stamps. Having left the BBC after 17 years I am wallpapering my upstairs loo with my suitably redacted collection of letters from Carter-Ruck, Schillings and the other usual suspects, defending a space-alien cult here, a money-laundering bank there. Pride of place goes to a series of letters sent last month from lawyers acting for Malta’s Yorgen “Mr Casino” Fenech, who owns the Portomaso gambling joint on the island’s red light strip, St Julian’s. For our book Murder On The Malta Express: Who Killed Daphne Caruana Galizia? (Silvertail Books) my co-authors, Carlo Bonini, Manuel Delia and I asked Fenech’s lawyers a bunch of questions. They denied everything.

Now, at last, he is answering questions from the police. As Standpoint went to press, Fenech was arrested on his motor yacht, freed, and rearrested in connection with the murder inquiry. Senior staff from the prime minister’s inner circle were resigning and the police inquiry widening. And Malta’s Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, has announced he is resigning in the new year.

We had begun by asking how come an unemployed man, Alfred Degiorgio, could gamble €457,000 and walk away with €441,000 in clean money from the Portomaso casino? That’s a success rate of 96.5 per cent, by the way.

It should be noted that Degiorgio was gambling at the Portomaso casino some years ago—the evidence stops in 2013—long before he, his brother George and their accomplice Vincent Muscat (no relation to Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat) were charged with the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed by a car-bomb. 

Caruana Galizia never wrote about the three men who are accused of killing her. They deny it. So logic suggests that someone else lies behind the assassination of Malta’s most fearless journalist. Inevitably, questions are being asked about the crowded field of her enemies, which includes Prime Minister Muscat and his cronies and supporters. 

One of them is “Mr Casino” Fenech. His shell company, 17 Black, appears to be a cog in a complicated arrangement connected to other shell companies controlled by the prime minister’s adviser Keith Schembri and cabinet minister Konrad Mizzi—who both resigned in late November. (Interestingly, the pair were the only men of power exposed by the Panama Papers still in office in the democratic world in late 2019.) Fenech is a pal of economy minister Chris Cardona (now “self-suspended” from office) who Caruana Galizia accused of going to a brothel while at a conference in Germany. Cardona was reportedly seen with one accused killer both before and after the murder, but denies meeting any of them. He too has now been interviewed by the police.

All concerned have consistently and strenuously denied any involvement in any wrongdoing. And there is no suggestion that Fenech’s casino empire is connected to organised crime.

In the course of writing our book, we asked Fenech: how come an unemployed man could afford to gamble so much money at his casino? For Fenech, GVZH Advocates replied:

Firstly, Fenech categorically rejects any allegations, assertions and/or suggestions made in his regard as completely baseless and unfounded. In this respect reference is made to numerous public statements made by our client denying the said allegations, and therefore it is indeed unethical and unlawful that you seem intended in persisting with the reiteration of such falsities, despite the absence of any shred of evidence corroborating the veracity of such allegations.

Note that phrase “the absence of any shred of evidence”. Our evidence about Degiorgio’s €441,000 gambling take-away comes from a continuing money-laundering trial of the Degiorgio brothers. The evidence is the Portomaso Casino’s records.

Confused, we wrote back to Fenech’s lawyers, Briffa and Vella, and asked if it seemed odd to them that Degiorgio could walk away from the Portomaso casino with €441,000 over a period of time; whether his gambling was flagged as suspicious; whether they checked the provenance of the money that was gambled; and whether Fenech thought this money was a cloak payment for services Degiorgio carried out for a third party and that Fenech was aware of the transaction.

They replied saying that the matter had been “comprehensively addressed” in their  previous “the absence of any shred of evidence” email, but concluded that our inferences and insinuations “are so spurious, false and contrived that they do not merit any consideration whatsoever”.

To be absolutely sure, we asked the lawyers to categorically state whether Degiorgio had gambled in Fenech’s casino after 2013. This was their response: “Please refer to our earlier email of today which is very clear on this matter.”

Well, not to us.

As well as Schembri, Mizzi and Cardona, we also wrote to the prime minister, and the woman who Caruana Galizia alleged got a €1 million bung from the fabulously corrupt Aliyev dynasty of Azerbaijan, who just so happens to be the prime minister’s wife, Michelle Muscat. All concerned have previously denied all suggestions of involvement in any wrongdoing but we wanted to be absolutely sure.

In response we got a letter from my old friends, Carter-Ruck, marked private and confidential. This placed us in a bind. Printing Carter-Ruck’s letter would breach the confidentiality request; leaving it out might suggest we had not offered the Muscats, as well as Cardona, Mizzi and Schembri a right of reply.

So we paraphrased the letter. It complained about their clients being quizzed at all in the context of an inquiry into Caruana Galizia’s death:

Carter-Ruck says that the authors will appreciate that, whilst the allegations put to each individual differ, each is highly defamatory. Carter-Ruck says that all of the matters put to the individuals in the authors’ correspondence are expressed, by implication, to be linked to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia as “the circumstances prior to and the aftermath of the assassination” is said to be the overall subject of the book. Carter-Ruck says the individuals concerned reserve all their rights in relation to the publication and repetition of any allegation that is defamatory and untrue.

On the alleged bung to the prime minister’s wife, Carter-Ruck said that a magisterial inquiry found signatures had been falsified on documents, inconsistent testimonies and nothing linking the prime minister’s family to the offshore company.

On the point about inconsistent testimonies, Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch MP, wrote a report on Caruana Galizia’s murder for the Council of Europe:

The magistrate also took special pains to reject the credibility of two key witnesses, Caruana Galizia and Maria Efimova, a former Pilatus Bank employee turned whistleblower. He did not, however, mention that Caruana Galizia had been murdered in October 2017 and Ms Efimova had fled Malta in 2017, which may have impaired his ability to resolve discrepancies.

The trial proper of the men accused of killing Daphne Caruana Galizia has yet to begin.

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