(CN) — Facing growing protests and accusations a close aide was involved in the killing of an anti-corruption journalist, Malta's prime minister said Sunday that he will resign in January. But critics demanded he step down now.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat made his announcement in a television address Sunday. He said he would step down as leader of his Labour Party on Jan. 12 and then resign as prime minister after his party chooses a successor.
But critics are demanding he leave office immediately, saying he could try to use his remaining time at the helm to cover up evidence of wrongdoing.
“This is what the country needs at the moment,” Muscat said in his televised address, according to the Times of Malta newspaper. “I am not perfect. And I have my own shortcomings. ... I assure you I gave everything in return for the trust you gave me. ... I had my defects and for them I apologize personally, even when these shortcomings were because of someone else.”
Muscat’s resignation comes after a wealthy Maltese gambling and property tycoon allegedly fingered the prime minister’s former chief of staff as being involved in the October 2017 killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a well-known Maltese journalist and blogger who was investigating top officials in the government.
The businessman, Yorgen Fenech, was arraigned Saturday, charged with being an accomplice in the murder of Caruana Galizia. She was killed by a car bomb placed under the seat of her rental vehicle that exploded near her home. Fenech pleaded not guilty.
Thousands of protesters have been gathering in Valletta, the capital of Malta, to demand Muscat's resignation. Large crowds convened Sunday and called for Muscat to step down immediately. The prime minister made his resignation announcement shortly afterward. More protests were planned for Monday.
Protesters held signs stating, “Mafia” and “You betrayed your own people.” Outside the prime minister's building, they shouted, “Out!” and, “Go now!”
Last week, Muscat's longtime former chief of staff, Keith Schembri, was detained and interviewed by police in connection with Caruana Galizia's murder. He was released, and has denied any wrongdoing. Fenech allegedly told investigators that Schembri was involved in a plot to assassinate the journalist.
Three men were arrested this summer and charged with triggering the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia.
Muscat's critics say the prime minister is delaying his departure for sinister purposes.
“Muscat has delayed his resignation in an attempt to continue protecting himself and Schembri,” the family of Caruana Galizia said in a statement. “There is no alternative explanation."
Adrian Delia, the leader of the opposition Nationalist Party, blasted Muscat's announcement.
“He fails to understand that the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia took place because of the collapse of the country's institutions,” he said, according to the Times of Malta. “This tragedy occurred because those closest to him — and for whom he is politically responsible — felt they were above the law.”
A team sent by the European Parliament is expected to land in Malta on Tuesday to investigate the case and examine the country's rule of law.
Caruana Galizia was investigating links between Fenech and Schembri and another government minister, both of whom resigned last week.
The Times of Malta reported that leaked documents showed Fenech’s offshore company, called 17 Black, funneled funds to other offshore companies set up by Schembri and a government minister.
Since Caruana Galizia’s murder, Muscat has come under intense criticism both within Malta and outside the southern European country for his government’s response to the murder. Maltese authorities have been accused of failing to properly investigate the case and failing to protect Caruana Galizia even though she was the subject of intimidation and threats.
In addition to reporting on Fenech and his ties to politicians close to Muscat, Caruana Galizia also reported that Muscat’s wife held a company in Panama, as exposed in the so-called Panama Papers, a trove of leaked documents from the law firm Mossack Fonseca. The documents revealed how rich and powerful people use tax havens to hide their wealth.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)
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