December 3, 2019 / 11:06 AM / 9 days ago

EU parliamentary mission head says Malta PM should stand aside now

VALLETTA (Reuters) - The head of a European Parliament delegation, dispatched to Malta to review the rule of law on the island following a scandal over the murder of a journalist, said on Tuesday Prime Minister Joseph Muscat should step aside immediately.

Muscat has defended his handling of the investigation into the 2017 killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and has said he will only step down as prime minister next month to give time to his Labour party to pick a new leader.

But Sophie In’t Veld, who is leading the two-day EU parliamentary mission to Malta, said she was “not reassured” after meeting Muscat and Justice Minister Owen Bonnici.

“I think everybody recognises, including the prime minister himself, that he has made some serious errors of judgement and I would say that staying on longer than necessary is another error of judgement,” she told reporters.

Neither Muscat nor Bonnici made any immediate comment following the talks.

Caruana Galizia, a campaigning journalist who regularly accused government ministers and business leaders of corruption, was blown up by a car bomb on Oct. 16, 2017.

Police on Saturday charged one of Malta’s wealthiest businessmen, Yorgen Fenech, with complicity in the murder. He has denied the accusations and said members of Muscat’s inner circle ordered the killing.

Critics, including Caruana Galizia’s family, want Muscat to resign immediately, saying he is shielding friends and associates from the investigation. He has denied this.

The main opposition party said on Monday it would boycott parliament until Muscat left office.

A small crowd of protesters hurled eggs and insults at both Muscat and Bonnici as they arrived at government headquarters for Tuesday’s meeting.

“The EU must put pressure on him to go,” said Caruana Galizia’s sister, Mandy Mallia, who took part in the raucous demonstration. “Fenech wasn’t acting alone. The other villains are hiding behind Muscat.”

The widening scandal has cast a cloud of doubt over the democratic credentials of the EU’s smallest state.

“Malta is part of the European Union and we all have to abide by the same rules and we can only be in the European Union if we trust each other. The basis for that trust does not seem to be there at the moment,” in’t Veld said.

Although Muscat has acknowledged that some of his decisions in the case could have been better, he has also justified his record, saying the prime suspect is now behind bars thanks to the largest investigation in Malta’s history.

Slideshow (23 Images)

Fenech wants legal immunity in return for giving information about the murder plot and about alleged corruption involving Muscat’s former chief of staff Keith Schembri and former Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi, among others, court filings showed.

The government has rejected his bid for a pardon. Schembri and Mizzi both resigned last week and have denied wrongdoing.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alex Richardson

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