Daphne Caruana Galizia murder: Malta opens inquiry into former police chief

By Juliette Garside Investigations correspondent

Malta’s police force has been ordered to open an inquiry into the country’s former police chief Lawrence Cutajar, following allegations that he interfered with the investigation into the 2017 murder of the prominent journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The order to “formally” investigate him was made on Monday by a magistrate who is presiding over court proceedings in connection with the case.

It came at the end of a dramatic nine-hour session, during which the court heard allegations that Cutajar tipped off a middleman accused of helping organise the car bomb that killed Caruana Galizia. Cutajar, who resigned as commissioner in January, denies any wrongdoing.

The developments will add weight to calls by the Caruana Galizia family for Europol to work with Malta’s police force on a joint investigation into the murder. The family’s request that Malta’s attorney general, Peter Grech, order a joint inquiry is backed by the Council of Europe’s special rapporteur on Malta, the European parliament and campaign groups including Article 19.

In further developments, the prime minister, Robert Abela, announced on Tuesday that his party’s deputy leader, Chris Cardona, is to resign. Cardona, a former minister, is also the subject of allegations in connection with the case, which he denies.

Speaking outside his office Tuesday, Abela said he would not have appointed Cutajar to a consultancy role had he known of his actions in the case.

“That decision was taken on the basis of facts as we knew them that day,” Abela said. “With the benefit of hindsight, the decision to give him a consultancy would certainly not have been taken.”

The middleman in Caruana Galizia’s murder, a bookmaker and taxi driver called Melvin Theuma, has been granted a presidential pardon in return for giving evidence.

Theuma claims he acted as go-between, paying three men who are accused of planting the car bomb, allegedly on the orders of the Maltese businessman Yorgen Fenech.

Fenech, who was charged with complicity in the killing last year, has pleaded not guilty. The court hearings are part of a compilation of evidence against him.

Cutajar has confirmed he twice met a friend of Theuma’s, and that he asked him for help in retrieving sound recordings made by the middleman. Those recordings, some of which have been played in court, are a key part of the case against Fenech.

Cutajar resigned shortly after the country’s ruling party appointed a new prime minister. He was kept on in a part-time consultancy role, on a salary of €31,000 a year.

On Monday evening, hours after the magistrate Rachel Montebello ordered the investigation into his actions, Cutajar was dismissed from his consultancy.

Protesters in 2017 throw tomatoes and coins on a banner calling on then Malta police commissioner, Lawrence Cutajar, to resign.
Protesters in 2017 throw tomatoes and coins on a banner calling on then Malta police commissioner, Lawrence Cutajar, to resign. Photograph: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Cutajar, appointed to run the police in 2016, has been top of the list of resignations demanded by activists seeking justice for Caruana Galizia.

In an interview with the Times of Malta published on Tuesday, Cutajar admitted pressing a friend of Theuma’s to help retrieve recordings that implicated the chief suspects. He told the paper he had been “panicking” and worried the investigation would hit a brick wall.

He said he was concerned investigators would not get their hands on the vital recordings and acted out of a desire to help them.

Cutajar did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian.

In the interview he denied allegations – published in press reports and repeated in court on Monday – that he had helped tip off Theuma about an investigation into his activities. He also denied passing on two dates that were being considered for Theuma’s arrest.

Caruana Galizia’s family has accused him of bungling the inquiry into the murder, and of failing to investigate allegations of money-laundering at Pilatus bank, which was shut in 2018. Caruana Galizia had accused the lender of processing corrupt payments.

Three men suspected of planting the bomb that killed her are on trial in Valletta.

Fenech, who owns a power station, hotels and a racehorse stable in France, was arrested while leaving Malta onboard his yacht.

In a case that has rocked Malta, his detention was followed by the resignation of a minister and the chief of staff to the then prime minister, Joseph Muscat. Both men, who deny wrongdoing, had been investigated alongside Fenech by Caruana Galizia.

Muscat resigned as prime minister in December.