The Mystery of the Murdered Journalist in Malta: Closing In On the Too-Usual Suspects

Dirty Libyan fuel deals, Russians buying passports, cigarette smugglers, shady politicians. The death of Malta’s muckraker shines a light on Europe’s most corrupt country.

The Mystery of the Murdered Journalist in Malta: Closing In On the Too-Usual Suspects

Matthew Mirabelli/Getty

VALLETTA, Malta—A year ago, Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote, perhaps prophetically, about the way diesel smugglers here working with militias in Libya smuggle oil for Islamic State fighters, and how they are killed when deals go bad.

“Another bomb in another car and another man dead,” she wrote back then on her popular Running Commentary blog. “And I thought, there goes another diesel smuggler. Because the discernible pattern in criminal assassinations over the last few years in Malta is that diesel smugglers are blown up by bombs in their cars, and drug smugglers are shot dead by hired hitmen.”

There have been five such bombings on Malta since the beginning of 2016. Last Monday, she became the victim of the sixth.

Although investigators here have not reached any firm conclusions, the organized crime network involved with the traffic in contraband fuel is one of several plausible threads they are focusing on as they work through dozens of leads to determine who killed the 53-year-old muckraking journalist and, more importantly, why.

Malta's government announced on Saturday, a day before mourners filled the streets of the capital, that it is offering a €1 million ($1.2 million) reward for information leading to the conviction of Galizia's killers.

One lead centers on a column she was preparing to publish as a follow-up to a story titled, “When a Russian billionaire is registered to half a basement flat, something has got to give,” which she wrote for The Malta Independent newspaper in August.

The apartment rented by the Russian she referred to is really just an address for a shell with no actual amenities. It is one of dozens of modest apartments in Malta that Caruana Galizia said have been earmarked for Russians who buy Maltese passports, which are European Union passports, in a shady but legal scheme that Caruana Galizia had been working to expose.

Under the scheme, anyone can qualify for Maltese citizenship, and thus the perks of EU citizenship, if they live on the island for five years. Or, as she found out, if they rent an apartment meeting a minimum rental price of around $1,000 a month for that time.

She believed that the money from the sale of these passports, which go for around €30,000 each, lines the pockets of several Maltese government officials who helped create the legal framework that makes it possible exploit this loophole. She also reported that the racket ends up harming working class Maltese who are either evicted from their homes or who can no longer find moderate or cheap housing on the island because those apartments are all rented as fronts for Russians who want European passports.

“This means that millionaires and even billionaires who apply to buy Maltese citizenship and who need to fulfil the obligation of renting an address for five years are paying thousands of euros a month to rent squalid basements and flats in side-streets—because they are just paying for the address, and don’t need something suitable in which to live,” she wrote in August. “If they actually had to live in the flats they rent, they would rent at the top end of the market and the flats in side-streets and basements would command a true market price and be rented to people who actually need to live in them.”

The diesel smuggling angle seems, at least for the moment, to be taking precedence over the other lines of inquiry. In fact, a team of Italian anti-mafia detectives investigating the Italian connection to the smuggled fuel arrived in Malta last week following Italian arrest warrants issued on Wednesday for nine people accused of smuggling stolen diesel fuel from Libya through Malta and Sicily into Europe.

Two Maltese were among those arrested, including Darren Debano, a former Maltese soccer player who was apprehended on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa on Friday morning. Why he was there is a matter of some speculation, since Lampedusa is a common byway for smugglers ferrying migrants and refugees to Europe.

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In June the United Nations Security Council published worrying findings from an investigation into complicity by several Libyan militias in the fuel smuggling racket (PDF). “Armed groups and criminal networks continue to exploit different sources of financing, such as the smuggling of migrants and fuel,” according to the report. “The Panel has identified networks along the western [Libyan] coastline, which are active in both.”

Maltese police, led by commissioner Lawrence Cutajar, who has also come under fire for his handling of the case, have not ruled out the possibility that Caruana Galizia’s assassin was local. After all, there were more than 40 pending libel cases in Malta’s court system lodged by those who wanted to silence her pen.

One involved an alleged scandal with a Cypriot cigarette smuggling ring and a prominent Maltese land developer named Silvio Debono, who denies any wrongdoing and filed 19 libel suits against her prompted by a column she wrote in March. “Right now I’m working on a story about Silvio Debono’s links to one shady cigarette man in Cyprus, a few containers of cigarettes that were not where they were supposed to be, and cash and bank drafts that moved between Malta and Cyprus around 2008/2009,” she wrote.

The last column Daphne Caruana Galizia published on her popular blog about half an hour before she was blown to bits in a car bomb ended with the type of accusatory kicker most Maltese had come to expect from her. “There are crooks everywhere you look now,” she wrote. “The situation is desperate.”

That phrase has since become a battle cry for many Maltese who have been at the mercy of their politicians’ widespread corruption for decades. It is emblazoned on T-shirts and written on posters splattered with red ink laid at a memorial shrine in front of the country’s hall of justice. Whoever killed Caruana Galizia had clearly meant to silence her. Instead, they amplified her voice.