A slightly rusty front-load washing machine stood in front of the Pilatus private bank in Valletta, Malta, last week with a sign dedicating the “monument of money laundering” to Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s opening of the bank in January 2014.
It was more than a subtle jab. The bank’s 38-year-old Iranian director, Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad, had just been indicted in Manhattan, where he resides, for allegedly evading American sanctions against Iran by funneling around $115 million of Iranian money through shady business dealings in Venezuela and Malta through the Pilatus bank.
The private bank, and Prime Minister Muscat and his wife’s alleged connections to it, were favorite topics of investigation for Panama Papers journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was blown up in a car bomb in October 2017. Nejad, in fact, was one of 47 people who had open libel suits against the journalist when she died. According to Caruana Galizia’s family, Nejad had filed a $40 million lawsuit against the journalist in an American court that he quietly withdrew the day after she was murdered.
Caruana Galizia had alleged that Muscat’s wife had a bank account in Panama into which Pilatus bank, led by Nejad, funneled millions in exchange for keeping the bank protected in Malta. One of the last posts Caruana Galizia uploaded to her blog Running Comment before she was killed was a link to a newspaper article about the Pilatus bank’s alleged wrongdoings and the quote from George Orwell’s book 1984: “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.”
Since Caruana Galizia was killed there have been numerous theories, ranging from dirty diesel fuel smuggling to her Panama Papers investigations, and more than 10 arrests of men apparently tied to the logistical aspects of the bombing, but no one has been arrested as the mastermind who ordered it.
Before Nejad’s arrest in America, Maria Efimova, a Russian citizen who worked at the Pilatus bank when it opened, and who had become one of Caruana Galizia’s primary sources for her Panama Papers investigations, turned herself into authorities in Greece where she had been apparently hiding out since Caruana Galizia’s murder.
Since then, Maltese authorities filed fraud charges against her for documents and information she allegedly gave to Caruana Galizia that were said to be found on the slain journalist’s computer. The Russian is currently in an Athens jail while her lawyers seek to fight extradition charges to Malta and Cyprus, where the Pilatus bank also has a branch. “She fears she will have the same fate as Daphne Caruana Galizia if she returns,” Stelios Kouloglou, a Greek official trying to help her apply for political asylum in Greece, told the Times of Malta.
Caruana Galizia’s son Matthew, who has taken up his mother’s charge against Maltese corruption, has theorized that the only way Muscat would know what was on his mother’s computer was if he was meddling in the investigation. “Our mother’s investigative reporting on Pilatus Bank was ‘fake news’ from a ‘hate blogger,’ according to Joseph Muscat,” the slain journalist’s son Matthew posted on Facebook after the Iranian’s arrest. “Then she was assassinated.”
A monument to the dead journalist in central Valletta has been vandalized twice since Nejad’s arrest but efforts by the family to have police officials check local CCTV video to find out who has razed the monument have been met with indifference—leading the family to believe the destruction was carried out by police who work closely with Muscat, according to a number of Caruana Galizia’s blog posts before her death.
The journalist’s family released a statement after Nejad’s arrest in the United States. “Malta’s authorities failed to hold Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad to account, leaving our mother, Daphne Caruana Galizia, to do so alone. Hashemi Nejad threatened our mother relentlessly, claiming she caused his Malta-based bank, Pilatus Bank, reputational damage,” the statement said. “Hashemi Nejad may finally face justice for some of what he’s done, which gets us closer than we have ever been to broad justice for our mother’s work. We wish our mother was alive to see it happen.”