VALLETTA (Reuters) - Police arrested one of Malta’s leading businessmen on Wednesday as part of an investigation into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Yorgen Fenech was detained by armed forces as he tried to leave the Mediterranean island before dawn aboard his luxury yacht.
The arrest came a day after Prime Minister Joseph Muscat offered to pardon a suspected middleman in the murder of Caruana Galizia if he provided legally binding evidence of who was behind the killing.
Muscat told reporters he had ordered additional police surveillance after news of the alleged go-between emerged.
“Had I not done that, today we might be talking of a person or persons of interest having potentially escaped,” he said.
Muscat gave no further details on the grounds for Fenech’s arrest and denied suggestions that some of his political allies might also be implicated in the case.
Fenech’s lawyer was contacted for comment but has so far issued no statement. Under Maltese law, the police have 48 hours to interrogate and charge him or release him.
Caruana Galizia, an eminent anti-corruption journalist, was killed by a car bomb near the Maltese capital Valletta in October 2017 - a murder that shocked Europe and raised questions about the rule of law on the small island.
Eight months before her death, she wrote about a mysterious company in Dubai called 17 Black Limited, alleging it was connected to Maltese politicians but offered no evidence.
A Reuters investigation tinyurl.com/y8coeu3x last year revealed that Fenech was the owner of the firm.
According to a December 2015 email, uncovered by Maltese financial regulators, secret Panama companies owned by then Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and Muscat’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, stood to receive payments of up to $2 million from 17 Black for unspecified services.
Schembri and Mizzi both told Reuters last October they had no knowledge of any connection between 17 Black and Fenech. Fenech denied making any plans to pay any politician or any person or entity connected to them.
There is no evidence the payments went ahead.
Around 2,000 protesters took to the streets of central Valletta on Wednesday evening to denounce Muscat’s government. At one point they blocked Justice Minister Owen Bonnici in his car and chanted “Justice”, “Mafia” and “Shame on you”.
Caruana Galizia’s family issued a statement welcoming news of Fenech’s arrest: “We now expect the authorities to continue investigating the links our mother uncovered between Fenech and the prime minister’s chief of staff and minister Konrad Mizzi.”
Three men suspected of being Caruana Galizia’s killers were arrested in December 2017, but police have struggled to determine who commissioned the murder.
In a potentially major step forward in the probe, a man detained last week as part of a separate investigation asked to see police dealing with the Caruana Galizia case and offered to provide the name of the mastermind in return for a pardon.
News of the man’s arrest was made public on Tuesday.
Fenech’s luxury yacht Gio left the Portomaso marina, five miles (8 km) north of Valletta, shortly after 5.00 a.m. (0400 GMT). However, armed forces swiftly intervened and forced him to return to port, sources said.
Company documents registered with the Malta Business Registry on Tuesday and made public on Wednesday showed that Fenech had abruptly resigned from a number of positions, including as director of his family group, Tumas Group Company.
He also stood down as director and co-owner of a group that won a large energy concession in 2013 from the Maltese state to build and run a gas power station on the island.
Another investor in the company, Germany’s Siemens, said in a statement on Wednesday that it had called for him to resign his directorship of Electrogas Malta after allegations over 17 Black surfaced, even though he denied any wrongdoing.
“Due to the public doubts in Mr. Fenech’s integrity, Siemens urged that he be dismissed from his membership on the Board of Directors,” it said, adding that it had been informed he had resigned on Wednesday.
There was no immediate comment on the Siemens statement from Fenech or his representatives.
Stephen Grey reported for this story from Dubai; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Toby Chopra
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