Malta’s prime minister Sunday won his party’s backing to stay on in his post despite protesters’ calls for him to go for his handling of a probe into the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Joseph Muscat got the unanimous backing of Labour MPs at an emergency meeting, called a day after tycoon Yorgen Fenech was charged with complicity in the murder. A court has also frozen Fenech’s assets.
The investigation has rocked the southern Mediterranean island, reaching the highest echelons of government.
Critics including members of Caruana Galizia’s family have accused Muscat, 45, of protecting those involved in murdering the popular journalist and blogger who exposed cronyism and sleaze within the tiny country’s political and business elite.
But a party insider told AFP after Sunday’s four-hour meeting: “The entire group was supportive of Joseph Muscat, and we told him that it’s for him to choose when to step down.”
Meeting at Muscat’s summer home, the MPs also agreed to reinstate Chris Cardona as economy minister and deputy leader.
Cardona had announced last week that he was “suspending himself” as the investigation into the killing of Caruana Galizia in a car bomb attack implicated top government officials.
Last week, the scandal claimed the scalps of Muscat’s top aide Keith Schembri and the former tourism minister, Konrad Mizzi.
Police sources said Fenech had identified Schembri as the “real mastermind” behind the killing.
Caruana Galizia, described as a “one-woman WikiLeaks”, accused Schembri of corruption along with Mizzi and Cardona.
Caruana Galizia’s family and thousands of protesters have repeatedly taken to the streets calling for Muscat’s resignation.
Last week, the Council of Europe’s special rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt also called on the Labour PM to step down “at the earliest possible opportunity”.
But Muscat himself insisted he would remain in power until the case was “closed”.
On Saturday, party insiders told AFP that Muscat was ready to go once those behind the killing had been charged.
The Labour Party would then elect his successor on January 18.
“The prime minister has said from the outset that he will leave no stone unturned to solve this despicable murder under his watch, and he delivered exactly that with the arraignment of someone who is believed to have commissioned the murder,” a party insider told AFP.
Meanwhile a European Parliament delegation is due to arrive on Malta late Monday and stay until Wednesday.
Led by Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld, it will examine doubts about the judiciary’s independence and investigate allegations of high-level corruption.
“Malta is part of Europe,” in’t Veld tweeted. “This concerns us all.”
Leaked emails revealed in court indicated that both Schembri and Mizzi stood to receive payments from a Dubai company called 17 Black, owned by Fenech.
The murder probe gained momentum following last week’s arrest of the tycoon, whose business interests span the energy, casinos and tourism sectors.
His detention came after an alleged middleman in the murder, taxi driver Melvin Theuma, was offered immunity in exchange for identifying others who were involved.
Although Schembri, Muscat’s former chief of staff, was arrested Tuesday, his release on Thursday sparked accusations of a cover-up.
Anti-government protesters were set to hold fresh rallies outside the parliament in Valletta on Sunday.
A Maltese court is expected to rule Monday on a request by Fenech for the chief investigator in the case, Keith Arnaud, to be removed amid allegations he also had close ties to Schembri and the prime minister.