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Council of Europe slams rule of law in Malta over journalist's murder

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By Stefan de Vries
People lay flowers and candles at a makeshift memorial during a vigil
People lay flowers and candles at a makeshift memorial during a vigil   -   Copyright  REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi/File Photo

A damning report into Malta's failure to identify those behind the murder of a journalist has highlighted systematic failings in law enforcement and raised questions about the rule of law in the country.

The 20-page report by the Council of Europe examines the case of Caruana Galizia, whose reporting uncovered widespread corruption, before she was killed by a car bomb in October 2017.

Her murder exposed the dark side of the Mediterranean island that is both a member of the EU and a haven for online gambling, offshore finance and cryptocurrencies.

Pieter Omtzig, a special rapporteur of the report, slammed the prime minister of Malta, claiming he is "all-powerful" in his ability to nominate judges, magistrates, "almost every supervisory body".

He added his opinion that parliament is very weak, and there is "no system of checks and balances".

The Maltese government calls the report "inaccurate" and "very biased"

Maltese authorities have called the report, which was released on Wednesday by Europe’s chief human rights watchdog, biased.

According to a press release circulated by the Maltese government, the report was based on "the very biased views of a small fraction of Maltese Opposition politicians who appear to have kept close to the Rapporteur and who have formed alliances with various vested interest groups who, for one reason or another, have an interest in damaging Malta’s reputation and in isolating Malta from Europe".

The government found several statements in the report to be inaccurate. For instance, while the report states that there is "widespread concern about the ability and effectiveness of the Maltese Police to investigate serious crimes", the government points to 2018 Eurobarometer data showing that over two-thirds of Maltese citizens trust the national police forces.

Other facts, including answers that the rapporteurs obtained by Maltese officials, were omitted in the report, the government added.

Furthermore, the government says that details such as an alleged lack of coordination between inquests and police investigations or that the last hearings about the Caruana Galizia case did not reflect the truth.

Omtzig's role was also called into question: the Maltese press release reads that he "was not the best-placed person to take on that role", mentioning past controversies linked to claims that he helped a fake witness to the MH17 disaster over Ukraine infiltrating a briefing attended by victims’ relatives".

"Unfortunately, the attempt to rush this report through without regard to basic fact-checking betrays an attitude which is far from giving a true picture of the situation in Malta", the press release concluded.

"A problem for the whole of Europe"

Jason Azzopardi, a lawyer for the Galizia family, said she was murdered because "she revealed high level institutionalised corruption and crime at the highest echelons of power".

He added: "Our message is that we will not let the people who ordered her murder, who killed her, to get away with it. And we will not let those in power use their corrupt money to breach or crush our democratic rights. We will prevail."

Speaking to Euronews shortly before the report’s full publication, Corinne Vella, Daphne Caruana Galizia’s sister, said the issues that had led to her sister’s murder were not just a problem for Malta, but for the whole of Europe.

“There is a problem of rule of law, we’ve maintained all along that her assassination is not an exception in a normal situation, but a direct outcome of systemic problems in Malta, and those problems affect all of Europe and not just Malta.”

She added, that the failing extended to the highest echelons of the Maltese government.

“There are problems surrounding the office of the prime minister, and the person who is currently in that office then yes, the problems do go all the way to the top.”

“Daphne was reporting about corruption at the highest levels of government, and its total impunity for the crimes that she exposed. The Prime Minister’s office is filled with people who have dubious records at best. His chief of staff is named in the Panama Papers, one of his star ministers is named in the Panama Papers and both men are still in office. There has been no investigation, and no retribution in their case.”