Man admits murder of Malta journalist, jailed for 15 years

People lay flowers and candles at a makeshift memorial during a vigil and protest on the first anniversary of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb, outside the Courts of Justice in Valletta, Malta October 16, 2018. — Reuters pic
People lay flowers and candles at a makeshift memorial during a vigil and protest on the first anniversary of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb, outside the Courts of Justice in Valletta, Malta October 16, 2018. — Reuters pic

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VALLETA, Feb 24 — One of three men accused of planting a car bomb that killed Maltese anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 dramatically pleaded guilty yesterday and was swiftly sentenced to 15 years in jail.

Vincent Muscat received a relatively lenient sentence after the judge said he had been cooperating with police for years, in a case that rocked the Mediterranean island nation.

The murder of Caruana Galizia, who exposed cronyism and sleaze within Malta’s political and business elite, sparked international outrage and protests that forced prime minister Joseph Muscat to resign.

Two alleged co-conspirators are still awaiting trial over the attack on October 16, 2017, while a businessman, Yorgen Fenech, has been charged with masterminding the murder.

In a statement read out by their lawyer, Jason Azzopardi, the victim’s family expressed their "hope that this development will begin the road for total justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia".

The murder of the 53-year-old robbed her of "her right to enjoy her family and grandchildren," he said.

"I say all this because if Daphne’s family were to respond today with all the emotions, it would be obvious as to what their reply would be," the lawyer said.

Prime Minister Robert Abela said in a statement that the plea and sentence were "a step closer towards justice. A step closer to establish the truth in this dark chapter for Malta and for the Caruana Galizia family."

Criminal conspiracy

Vincent Muscat and brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio, all in their fifties at the time, were arrested in December 2017 for carrying out the murder, and charged in July 2019.

In a pre-trial hearing yesterday, Muscat’s lawyer Marc Sant informed the court that his client wanted to register an admission.

When asked how he wanted to plead, Muscat replied: "Guilty."

Judge Edwina Grima told the lawyer: "These are grave accusations. Murder, conspiracy... he (Muscat) possibly faces a life term."

But Muscat repeated that he pleaded guilty to the charges, which include murder, possession of explosives, placing the bomb, and criminal conspiracy.

He was sentenced just hours later to 15 years in prison, in a deal with the prosecution in which he renounced his right to appeal. 

He must also pay €42,930 (around RM211,000) in court expenses.

The judge said that, according to testimony by lead murder investigator Keith Arnaud, Muscat had been cooperating since 2018.

"This assistance may also result in the start of prosecution against third parties," she said.

Mafia island

Caruana Galizia, who has been described as a "one-woman WikiLeaks", was known for investigating high-level corruption, and contributed to the 2016 Panama Papers data leak. 

She was killed in a car bomb targeting her vehicle not far from her home in the north of the island.

One of her sons accused prime minister Muscat of being complicit and turning Malta, a former British colony that joined the European Union in 2004, into a "mafia island". 

Muscat stepped down in January 2020 following widespread anger and mass protests over his perceived efforts to protect friends and allies from the investigation.

Muscat’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, who was accused by Caruana Galizia of being involved in corruption — which he denied — is among those alleged to be implicated.

Businessman Yorgen Fenech is currently awaiting trial for being the mastermind.

The owner of a Dubai company, 17 Black, on which Caruana Galizia had reported, Fenech was arrested in November 2019 as he was sailing away from Malta on his yacht. — AFP

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