Murdered Muckracker Continues to Expose Corruption From Malta to Moscow
Almost a year ago Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a bomb in her car. But she wasn’t silenced. Her reporting about corruption in Malta has a growing impact.
ROME—The makeshift memorial to journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia on the steps of the Great Siege Monument in Valletta, the capital of Malta, started disappearing a few months after it was erected on Oct. 16, 2016.
That was the day Galizia was blown up as she drove down a country lane near her house. Each time they were swept away, the flowers and candles and banners and posters returned with accusations against the Maltese ruling class. Many of the mementos quoted the last line of the journalist’s last post on her Running Commentary blog, “The situation is desperate.”
Last weekend, city workers in Valletta started erecting scaffolding and fences where the makeshift memorial stood, citing a restoration project in progress. Caruana’s son Matthew, a journalist who is following up her leads against the government, posted a picture of the fencing by opposition minister Simon Busutil with the words “Cowards. Complicit. Cretins.”
Three men, Vince Muscat, known as il-Kohhu, Alfred Degiorgio, known as il-Fulu, and George Degiorgio, known as ic-Ciniz, are standing trial for the journalist’s murder, but there are no illusions that they actually masterminded the violent act. The men, although officially unemployed, owned luxury yachts and cars, and were known entities in a local criminal organization. Galizia’s family believes they acted as assassins for hire.
They were discovered after one of them left a cigarette butt at a lookout post above Galizia’s house the day of the car bombing. Galizia’s sons have called upon the European Union’s Court of Human Rights to intervene to force Malta to take their mother’s murder seriously and find who, among their mother’s many enemies, wanted her dead. Their trial, which adjourned until October 10, has yielded little more than a lesson in the use of old Nokia phones in car-bomb-making techniques.
“My mother would have been able to find the mastermind,” Galizia’s son Matthew told The Daily Beast. “Anyone familiar with her work and her last few years alive knows where to start to find the ones who ordered the killing: exactly where she left off.”
While Galizia’s own murder trial may not net the type of justice she would surely have fought for, her investigative work has already led to the arrests of several people in international cases she was digging into. Most recently, her reporting has led the tightening of the noose around Iranian-born Ali Sadr Hasheminejad, a 38-year-old American citizen who graduated from Cornell, who recently was indicted in Washington on one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, one count of conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, one count of bank fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, one count of money laundering, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. According to the American indictment, Sadr used fake passports from St. Kitts and Nevis and a Dubai address to form shell companies in Switzerland and Turkey to “conspire to evade U.S. sanctions” for the benefit of “Iranian individuals and entities.”
According to court documents and statements released by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, Sadr was allegedly skirting American sanctions against Iran by funneling around $115 million of Iranian money through shady business dealings in Venezuela and Malta.
“Sadr took steps to evade US economic sanctions and to defraud US banks by concealing the role of Iran and Iranian parties in US dollar payments sent through the US banking system,” the indictment alleges.
Prosecutors, fed by Galizia’s investigations first published in the Panama Papers, say he funneled the money through the Pilatus bank, which he founded in Malta and which had ties to the Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat’s wife Michelle and to his chief of staff, Keith Schembri. Additional reporting by journalists collaborating on Galizia’s original investigations under The Daphne Project umbrella uncovered further connections between the Maltese prime minister’s wife and the bank.
Before she was killed, Galizia reported that Muscat’s wife had established a Panamanian shell company to launder money with the help of the Pilatus Bank. Sadr had launched a libel suit against Galizia in the American state of Arizona on May 10, 2017, after the Panama Papers investigations, but withdrew it October 18, two days after her murder, according to the court docket in Arizona. Galizia’s son Matthew also points out that Muscat and his wife were among several hundred chosen guests at Sadr’s wedding in 2015 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Florence. In fact, several of those associated with Galizia’s Panama Papers investigations were also in attendance at the gala affair.
Galizia had also worked hard to tie together Sadr’s extensive business network which included assets tied to the Pilatus bank in Malta, and affiliated financial institutions in Switzerland, Hong Kong, Cyprus and the UK, in addition to his extensive assets in America. His case is being tried by the Terrorism and International Narcotics arm of the Southern District of New York, which has tried many of the big terrorism cases in the United States.
Further investigations by the Daphne Project collaborators into the Maltese businesses under fire through Sadr’s financial structure show ties to Russian oligarchs who gained Maltese citizenship through a widely publicized passports-for-sale scheme that Muscat has sought to expand in 2018. Under the scheme, anyone wanting Maltese citizenship, and a European Union passport that allows free movement through the Schengen zone, has to pay around €650,000 into a Maltese fund of questionable provenance that Galizia had been working hard to crack. Galizia supposed that paying a little more would mean that certain requirements could be waived. The Maltese government’s own figures state that around 1,200 families have applied for Maltese citizenship under this highly publicized “Malta Citizenship By Investment” scheme. Nearly a quarter of those who applied last year alone are from Russia or the Gulf and Middle East regions.
Last year, The Daily Beast visited several rundown apartment blocks in Valletta, coincidentally not far from where the men on trial for killing Galizia were arrested, that are used as residence addresses by those seeking citizenship that rent for exorbitant monthly prices. Few have kitchens, bathrooms or even electricity, but as long as they have a mailbox, the Maltese government accepts them as an official residence even though it might surely raise eyebrows that someone who could spend half a million on a passport would live in a dingy flat without running water.
In connection to the passport scheme, Galizia had also been following Malta’s astonishing cryptocurrency growth before she was killed. In her March 2017 blog post, “I suddenly realized that here we have a situation in which the governor of the central bank of a European Union member state, and its prime minister, are arguing for the rise, growth and promotion of crypto-currencies, which will give enormous advantages to money-launderers, terrorists and other forms of organised crime,” she wrote. “This did not come of nowhere. Like everything else Muscat and those connected to him do, there is an invariably an agenda to their personal advantage, dressed up as being of benefit to Malta or the European Union. It is especially unfortunate that Malta’s prime minister is arguing for cryptocurrencies (when the European Union is moving against them) at a time when he and those most closely connected to him have been implicated so heavily in the Panama Papers scandal, with the suspicion of crimes involving corruption and money-laundering hanging heavily over them.“
According to a Bloomberg expose published Tuesday, Malta has just become Europe’s first cryptocurrency capital after Muscat’s plan to lure businesses from Asian countries where governments were cracking down. The article quotes Muscat describing his own policies for Malta as, “some sensible, others risky, yet others which might sound, and be, outright insane.”
So far, at least, there are no plans for an official government ceremony to mark the one year anniversary of Galizia’s brutal murder on October 16. And if the government even suggested it, her family say they would decline. After all, Galizia’s legacy is tied to exposing Malta’s corrupt core, not complicity.