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Malta ex-PM, top officials charged in sweeping corruption probe

By AFP

May 8, 2024 08:32 PM


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Malta's former premier Joseph Muscat, the current deputy premier and the central bank chief have been charged in a hospital privatisation scandal that has rocked the Mediterranean island nation.

Muscat and one of his ex-ministers, Konrad Mizzi, have been charged with accepting bribes, corruption in public office and money laundering, according to documents obtained by AFP late Tuesday.

It is the first time a former premier will face criminal charges in court. Muscat has rejected the allegations as "fantasies", saying he is the victim of a "political vendetta".

Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne -- who had been tipped to be Malta's next European Commissioner -- and former finance minister Edward Scicluna -- currently governor of the Central Bank of Malta -- were also charged with fraud, misappropriation and fraudulent gain.

Muscat's former chief of staff Keith Schembri has been charged with money laundering, soliciting bribes and abuse of office to exact an unlawful advantage "through threats or abuse of authority".

The charges were filed on Monday after a long-running investigation that has shaken Malta's political establishment.

It dates back to the decision by Muscat's Labour government in 2015 to pass management of three public hospitals to a private company, Vitals Global Healthcare.

The company had no healthcare experience and after 21 months it sold the concession to another company, Steward Health Care, without having made the investments promised.

Following a challenge by the opposition Nationalist party, a court last year annulled the privatisation deal, finding evidence of fraudulent behaviour.

A criminal investigation was launched in 2019. It concluded last month with the magistrate recommending that charges be brought.

  'Lies... fantasies' 

 Those charged are expected to be summoned to court in coming days, beginning what is likely to be a long legal case.

Money laundering risks a jail sentence of up to 18 years.

Muscat -- who resigned in 2019 in the political fallout over the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia -- has strongly protested his innocence.

"If they weren't so serious, the accusations against me would be laughable," he wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday.

"Without even questioning me, the authorities decided to smear me and accuse me of corruption, money laundering, establishing a criminal organisation, and even claiming I took 30 million euros."

He added: "It will be my pleasure to dismantle each of these accusations and show how they are not built just on fantasies, but also on lies."

Prime Minister Robert Abela -- who succeeded Muscat as Labour Party leader -- has also raised doubts over the investigation.

He has questioned the timing of the charges -- one month before European Parliament elections -- and suggested "the establishment" were seeking to "steal the sovereignty" of Malta's leadership.

On Monday, he told a press conference that as the case progressed, "everyone will have the opportunity to determine whether or not the magistrate's inquiry began with the presumption of guilt... I hope that this is not the case."

 Judicial independence 

 His comments drew sharp criticism.

The prime minister "chose to stand alongside the aggressor instead of the victims... he chose his colleagues instead of Malta and the Maltese," Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech said.

Civil society group Repubblika added: "The prime minister's conduct amounts to a gross assault on judicial independence and the rule of law. We will resist this attack."

Malta's head of state, President Myriam Spiteri Debono, issued a statement on Wednesday calling for "reticence and caution".

"The present situations essentially require that all institutions, but particularly the courts and the judiciary, can exercise their functions in a serene atmosphere," she wrote in English.

Muscat resigned as prime minister after investigations into the October 2017 murder of Caruana Galizia implicated members of his office.

The journalist had exposed cronyism and sleaze within Malta's political and business elite. She was described as a "one-woman WikiLeaks".

Her death in a car bomb near her family home sparked international outrage and protests across Malta.

A public inquiry published in 2021 found no evidence of state involvement in her assassination, but found the government created a "climate of impunity" for those who wanted to silence her.


AFP


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