(CN) – A prominent and politically connected Maltese businessman was arrested Wednesday morning in connection with the 2017 murder of an anti-corruption journalist, sending shockwaves across the small island nation and prompting demands for its prime minister to resign.
Police and Maltese armed forces intercepted businessman Yorgen Fenech, whose family runs one of Malta’s most powerful business groups, as he was leaving Malta near dawn aboard his luxury yacht.
He was cited as a “person of interest” in the investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, an anti-corruption journalist who was killed by a car bomb outside her home in October 2017. Before she was killed, Caruana Galizia reported on Fenech’s business dealings and his ties to political figures.
His arrest came less than 24 hours after Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced on Tuesday that a suspected middleman in the journalist’s killing was arrested last week and was ready to provide information about who commissioned the journalist’s killing in exchange for a presidential pardon.
Three men were previously arrested and accused of triggering the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia, but the mastermind of the killing has remained a mystery.
In the wake of Fenech’s arrest, opposition politicians and supporters of Caruana Galizia demanded Muscat resign because of Fenech’s alleged shady dealings with the prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and government minister Konrad Mizzi.
The Times of Malta newspaper reported that leaked documents showed that Fenech’s offshore company called 17 Black funneled funds to offshore companies set up by Schembri and Mizzi.
Since Caruana Galizia’s murder, Muscat has come under intense criticism both within Malta and outside 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.
Besides reporting on Fenech and his ties to politicians close to Muscat, Caruana Galizia also revealed 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 used tax havens to hide their wealth.
On Wednesday, Muscat said he was not protecting his political allies and dismissed demands he resign.
“Facts speak louder than words. There is no impunity in this country,” he told reporters before entering Parliament, according to the Times of Malta.
Reppublika, a human rights group in Malta, issued a statement saying Muscat must resign because he had “created the state of impunity – the Mafia State.” The group charged that his failings in government led to Caruana Galizia’s murder.
“Now he must leave. If he doesn’t he must be fired,” the group said. “His party, his parliamentary group, Parliament have the power and the duty to have him removed if he does not go of his own free will.”
The family of Caruana Galizia also called on Muscat to resign.
Last month, in connection with the second anniversary of her death, Pieter Omtzigt, a special rapporteur for the Council of Europe, a leading human rights and judicial organization, strongly criticized Malta for lack of progress in the case and failings in the investigation. He claimed that authorities may have turned down evidence about who may have commissioned the killing.
Last week, following Omtzigt’s visit to Malta, the Maltese government announced it was opening a public inquiry into Caruana Galizia’s death.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)