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Maltese Prime Minister Announces Plans to Resign After Protests Intensified Over Journalist's Murder

A probe into the 2017 car bombing that killed investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia ensnared government and business figures on the island and provoked calls for the prime minister to step down.

Protesters hold up placards and pictures of the late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia

Protesters hold up placards and pictures of the late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia as they gather outside the prime minister's office to call for his resignation, in Valletta, Malta on Nov. 20, 2019. (Photo: Matthew Mirabelli/AFP via Getty Images)

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced Sunday that he intends to step down soon amid protests demanding his immediate resignation, which intensified over the weekend after a businessman who allegedly has ties to the government was charged with complicity in the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Caruana Galizia, who reported extensively on government corruption and was widely known for her work related to the Panama Papers, was killed by a car bomb explosion near her home in Malta on Oct. 16, 2017. The investigation into her death has drawn global attention to the small Mediterranean island nation. Some of the reporter's surviving relatives are among those who have called for Muscat to leave office.

In a televised address Sunday night, Muscat said that he will resign as leader of Malta's governing Labour Party on Jan. 12 and resign as prime minister "in the days after." Until then, "I will continue to carry out my responsibilities" for both positions, Muscat said, adding that he is "ensuring stability in the leadership of the country."

The outgoing leader—who has not been directly connected to the plot against Caruana Galizia—struck a tone that was described by reporters as "defensive" and "defiant" in some comments about the ongoing murder probe and criticism of Malta's institutions.

"As prime minister, I promised two years ago that justice would be done in the case of the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia," he said. "Today I am here to tell you that I kept my word." Muscat also said that "our institutions are strong and they function. Shame on anyone who ridicules them as he or she is ridiculing our country."

The Times of Malta reported that although Muscat's address "came just hours after several thousand protestors gathered in Valletta calling for his immediate resignation to ensure justice" for Caruana Galizia, "the prime minister did not make any references to mounting calls to leave at once."

Caruana Galizia's family responded Sunday to Muscat's delayed resignation in a statement which said in part, "His continued tenure as prime minister is intolerable to anyone who cares about justice."

"His role in the investigation into our wife and mother's assassination is unlawful," the family's statement said. "Until he resigns, we will use all legal remedies to ensure Muscat has no further involvement in the investigation and criminal proceedings, other than as a possible suspect."

Muscat's announcement came after prosecutors on Saturday hit a wealthy Maltese businessman with various charges related to Caruana Galizia's murder.

As the New York Times reported:

The arraignment of the businessman, Yorgen Fenech, a member of one of Malta's most prominent and richest families, capped a tumultuous week in which a long-stalled investigation into the murder of the journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, suddenly picked up pace, ensnaring senior members of the government and Malta's business elite.

Mr. Fenech, 38, who is suspected of paying three contract killers to carry out the murder, pleaded not guilty. He was arrested on Nov. 19 while trying to flee Malta aboard his yacht. Maltese military personnel halted the vessel as it set out to sea from a marina built by Mr. Fenech's family conglomerate, Tumus Group, and forced it to return to port.

Earlier this week, Fenech—who is seeking a pardon from Maltese President George Vella—claimed to police that Keith Schembri was the real mastermind behind Caruana Galizia's murder. As the Times of Malta explained, "Schembri served as the prime minister's chief of staff until late Monday, when he resigned before being called in for questioning on Tuesday morning. Police officers were spotted seizing items from his Mellieħa home later that day."

Along with Schembri, "two ministers who are also suspected of possible involvement in, or knowledge, of the plot" resigned this week, the New York Times reported. However, unlike the Fenech, none of the ex-officials have been charged in the case.

The alleged contract killers—Vince Muscat (who is not related to the prime minister) and brothers Alfred and George Degiorgio—were arrested in December 2017. On Thursday, Reuters published an exclusive report on a "previously untold account of the plot to kill Daphne, a contract killing that earned the killers just 150,000 euros."

According to Reuters, Vince Muscat "revealed these sensational details to the police in April 2018, in the hope of getting a pardon," which the prime minister has so far refused. Details of the confession were obtained by the new agency "last year but were not published until now to avoid damaging the investigation."

Despite Vince Muscat's reported confession, Reuters noted, "the brothers continue to deny Daphne's murder and have declined to answer police questions."

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