The unswept corners of Daphne’s murder.
Three years after the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, several clues point to the alleged mastermind behind her murder: powerful businessman Yorgen Fenech. Although he categorically denies involvement, several revelations by the “Daphne Project” and Le Monde suggest otherwise.
By Arthur Bouvart & Anne Michel, journalist at Le Monde. Translated by Phineas Rueckert.
He was ready. Any day, the police might knock on the door of his house in southern Malta. He was about to be arrested for money laundering, and faced years in prison. But he wasn’t going down alone. So he prepared everything. In an empty ice cream container, held tightly against his chest, were photos, phones, and three USB drives with compromising information. He had sworn not to open the container until he was safely in the presence of a top police investigator.
On November 14, 2019, while parking his car near his apartment, the 42-year-old taxi driver was stopped by Malta’s Economic Crimes Unit. In addition to the container, he had also written a note, entirely in capital letters:
“I, Melvin Theuma, am providing the information that I was the middleman in the case concerning Ms Caruana Galizia. I am relaying this proof so that you will know who hired me and paid for the bomb.”
The news spread like wildfire across Malta, a small Mediterranean island not far from Sicily. For Malta’s 500,000 residents, it brought flashbacks to October 16, 2017, the day renowned anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb. Her vehicle had been loaded up with so many explosives that when they went off, it was literally projected into a nearby field. At the time, images of the bombed-out car, its frame blackened and doors ripped apart by the impact, played on a loop around the world.
Theuma’s arrest had the potential to break open the case. After two years of stalled investigations, finding the truth of what had happened to Galizia was again possible. Apart from the arrest of three local gangsters who were allegedly paid 150,000 Euros to set off the bomb, nothing was known about who had ordered the attack. Suddenly, the police had in their custody a man who claimed to be the link between the mastermind and the men who had planted the bombs.
The entire island of Malta awaited with bated breath.
In a country nearly suffocated by the effects of rampant corruption, Theuma’s testimony was a shocking revelation. The taxi driver was granted presidential immunity in exchange for naming the mastermind. And the name he revealed was none other than Yorgen Fenech — one of the richest and most powerful people on the island. The heir to a conglomerate that includes hotels, casinos and nearly an entire luxury neighborhood in the city of St. Julian, Fenech was known to frequent the chicest restaurants and stroll along the Portomaso Marina in a crisp suit, with a completely shaved head and dark sunglasses.
It was just a few nautical miles from this port, six days after Theuma’s arrest, that Fenech was arrested on November 20 as he attempted to flee the country at sunrise in his yacht, heading in the direction of Sicily. In just a few hours, flooded by the flash of cameras, the businessman became Malta’s public enemy number one.
Fenech’s arrest brought up a number of questions. Who really is Fenech, the businessman whose family empire, Tumas, stretched well into the heart of Europe, and notably France? Did he order Galizia’s murder? If so, why? And what to make of Theuma, a cab driver linked to suspicious illegal betting and predatory lending, who was sometimes inconsistent in his story and maybe more strategic than meets the eye?
Formally charged and jailed 10 days later on November 30, Fenech only leaves prison to attend his court hearings, during which the police and prosecutors regularly reveal the evidence they’ve been accumulating and witnesses take the stand to explain their role in the affair. In this procedure, called “compilation of evidence,” that’s specific to the Maltese judicial system, the judge will decide whether Fenech will be formally put on trial.
Fenech claims to be innocent. But evidence suggesting the businessman’s implication in the affair is now in the hands of the police, according to an investigation by the “Daphne Project,” an initiative launched by Forbidden Stories that gathered 45 journalists from 18 media outlets, including Le Monde, to publish the work of the assassinated journalist in the wake of her death.
The phones and USB drives Theuma handed over to the Maltese authorities shed new light on Galizia’s killing. Since 2018, the intermediary who confessed to having hired the alleged killers had recorded his conversations with the man he said was calling the shots — Yorgen Fenech — because he feared he himself would be ‘eliminated.’ According to sources close to the investigation, the police are in possession of a string of messages from the encrypted messaging app Signal from November 13, 2019. Theuma knew his arrest was imminent and Fenech, appearing under the pseudonym “Yurgin,” warned him to sweep away all traces of his involvement:
“Be 100% sure that you have everything clean,” the businessman warns him in the message. “Not only regarding this (…) Don’t leave any traces on the (phone) numbers so that they will have nothing to bother you about.”
“No no for sure, nothing,” the middleman replies.
“Great (…) If we keep our minds clear it’ll pass 100%.”
Fenech, the messages suggest, wanted to clear himself of any implication in the attack against the 53-year-old journalist. It wasn’t the first time he told Theuma to cover his tracks. In the spring of 2018, after finding out that one of the suspected bombers, Vincent Muscat, had secretly spoken to police, Fenech sent a message to Theuma:
“Keep calm. Get the message to Maksar [the nickname of a famous criminal group in Malta] that he [Vincent Muscat] already said the bomb was made in their garage in Zebbug.”
Fenech was well informed of Muscat’s confession and how the case was progressing. Nonetheless, he took precautions to distance himself from the alleged killers because he was “the one who should worry,” according to one of Theuma’s recordings. In the recording, which was played in court in Malta, the voices of the two men are tense. The audio quality is poor, but the listener can still clearly hear Theuma trying to reassure Fenech:
“Because if they have to arrive to a point, they will arrive to me.”
“The one who arranges the affair is not in trouble as much as the one who did it,” the businessman replies.
“Your name was never mentioned, I swear to you,” the intermediary concludes.
Theuma’s testimony offers an unprecedented look into the series of events that led to Galizia’s death. According to the taxi driver’s testimony, the journalist’s fate was sealed on a spring day in 2017. Outside of the restaurant Blue Elephant on the Portomaso Marina, Fenech reportedly told Theuma: “I want to kill Daphne Caruana Galizia.”
The two men had known each other for a number of years, and were close confidants. Theuma would transport Fenech’s family around Malta as the family’s personal cab driver and had a permanent spot at the Hilton. The two met through their shared passion for horse-racing. Fenech had grown up around the race-tracks, his father Georges being the president of the Marsa racing track in southern Malta. Theuma, for his part, used to work his way through the stands, taking illegal bets. It wasn’t uncommon for Fenech, who later came to own a stable, to place his bets through Theuma.
But in April 2017, Theuma took on another kind of contract entirely: the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. In his testimony, he affirms having received an envelope containing 150,000 Euros, to be paid to her alleged killers. In the following months, Fenech became more and more stressed, according to the cab driver: “From that moment on Yorgen called me a lot. One call after another saying; tell him to go kill her quickly,” Theuma told the magistrates.
Around the same time, Galizia was obsessively investigating corruption in Malta, including the affairs of Fenech’s family business, Tumas Group. She was notably looking into a major procurement contract by the Electrogas consortium, which was run by Fenech and included investments from Tumas, Siemens and a major public company based in Azerbaijan. The 18-year contract concerned a new energy center that would provide gas and electricity to the entire country, supposedly to assure its energy independence. But Galizia felt that the contract was marred by corruption. Weeks earlier, she had obtained an email leak of more than 600,000 internal messages — emails she would never have the time to fully analyze.
This leak most likely signed her death warrant.
“We always thought that Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered because of something she was going to release, not because of something that she had already written about,” a policeman in charge of the investigation declared in court in August.
The email leak wasn’t the only sensitive information in Galizia’s back pocket. The journalist had also uncovered another potential bombshell: a mysterious company based in Dubai and used, she presumed, to launder money in and out of Malta. Called 17 Black, the company was going to transfer money to the prime minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri and Malta’s energy minister to their offshore accounts in Panama. Both denied having knowledge of any plan to receive payment from this company.
Galizia never had the chance to investigate this lead because she was killed before having confirmed who was hiding behind 17 Black. But the company did in fact belong to Yorgen Fenech, Reuters and Times of Malta, both members of the “Daphne Project,” revealed.
Contacted by members of the “Daphne Project,” Fenech’s lawyers stated that their client “denies any involvement in the murder,” adding that, “Mr. Theuma’s evidence is replete with unreliable claims and unexplained contradictions.”
“We are confident that a fair trial process will continue to expose the falsity of his allegations,” the statement continued. “Mr. Fenech has never tried to escape the Maltese Island and his trial. Fenech urges the most scrupulous of investigations to identify the perpetrators of this terrible crime. He is confident that such an investigation will demonstrate his innocence.”
As the investigations into Galizia’s death intensified under Europol pressure, France also began to look into Fenech’s business activities. The Tumas Group, run by Fenech’s uncle Raymond and his brother Franco, owns the Hilton Hotel in Evian-les-Bains. Fenech had also bought racehorses in France that were seen on the tracks of courses in the Parisian suburbs of Vincennes and Enghien as late as the end of 2019. The prize-winning horses brought in more than 358,000 Euros between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2017. His permit for horse-racing was removed in February of this year.
The same month, France’s financial crimes prosecutor, the Parquet national financier (or PNF by its French initials), launched a preliminary inquiry into “bribery of a foreign public official,” after a family member of the journalist and Reporters Without Borders made a formal complaint. Investigators are looking into whether money earned in France was used to finance Maltese corruption, and perhaps even the murder of the journalist. The proceedings are still in early stages, but lawyer Emmanuel Daoud, who represents the plaintiffs, urged the PNF to “do everything to assure that the investigations are put into action in the fastest way possible, with the cooperation of authorities in Malta and Dubai.”
In France, those who crossed paths with Fenech have mostly kept quiet. At Haras de Ginai, a stable in Normandy where the businessman bought a number of racehorses, gates close as soon as Fenech’s name is mentioned. Fabrice Souloy, the man chosen by Fenech to train his horses, had his training licence suspended due to an investigation into doping. The owner of the stable, Jacky Souloy, did not want to further comment on his relations with the businessman: “I don’t want to receive you. Fenech had horses here. We sent him bills and he paid. We spoke to the fiscal investigators. It’s over, finished. We’ve had no relations for two years, end of discussion.”
In the lakeside city of Evian-les-Bains, where the Tumas Group owns the Hilton hotel, it’s equally as challenging to get an answer. Hotel management doesn’t pick up their phone. Nor does the town’s mayor, Josiane Lei, a member of the conservative party. The hotel contract was drawn up with the town’s previous mayor, who has since died.
Stéphane Canessant, the former mayoral candidate from President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party, isn’t sure why the Maltese invested in the town, which butts up against Lac Leman, just kilometers from Switzerland. “It’s not clear why the Maltese would invest here. It’s an area that feels more like Switzerland than France,” he said. “In any case, this affair worries us for its effects on the local economy. The Hilton is 170 rooms along the lake, attracting an upper class clientele from around the world, many from the Middle East. We don’t want a financial catastrophe.”
In Malta, as the truth slowly emerges, one major question still looms: if Yorgen Fenech is guilty, did he act alone or was he operating in cahoots with a cadre of murderous Maltese politicians longing to rid themselves of the journalist?
The businessman told the investigators that he was the victim of a plot organized by Keith Schembri, the chief of staff of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who was forced to resign due to the scandal in January. Schembri was not only a long-time friend and confidant of Fenech, but according to the businessman, the brains behind the operation who protected him and later sold him out.
During his police questioning, Fenech accused the former chief of staff of paying the three suspected killers 80,000 Euros. He also reportedly kept the businessman up-to-date on the police investigation up until Fenech’s spectacular arrest at sea. Schembri was present at nearly all of the police briefings to the prime minister. Fenech said in court that he was “continuously informed, you can say in real time,” of every step of the investigation, including the arrest of the alleged bombers and the intermediary, the request for immunity of one of the presumed killers and the continuous phone monitoring of people involved, including himself. According to sources close to the investigation, the two men exchanged more than 800 messages on the messaging service WhatsApp in 2019. Schembri said in court “he never passed on sensitive information about the case to Yorgen Fenech,” and he admitted to never having told anyone about his friendship with Yorgen, including the police.
Just before his arrest, Fenech reportedly spoke with Schembri on the phone for 24 minutes, though it is still unclear what they exactly said to one another. The businessman has since accused the former chief of staff of, days later, secretly passing him a four-page letter through their shared doctor, a lette that Fenech described in court as “a script to follow” for accusing someone else of the assassination. Fenech was at that time released on bail for medical reasons, under the supervision of this same doctor. The doctor confirmed in court that he went to see Schembri upon Fenech’s request, and was given four sheets of paper to deliver to the businessman. Schembri has categorically denied the accusations, testifying in court, “I did not write the letter and I did not send it over.”
The former chief of staff and the former prime minister both claim to have nothing to do with Galizia’s murder. Briefly arrested at the end of 2019, Schembri was soon thereafter released without charges. He was recently re-arrested, but this time for an entirely separate corruption charge: allegedly receiving kickbacks for furnishing rich foreigners with Maltese passports. Although Theuma has continued to say that Fenech is “the sole mastermind” of Galizia’s murder, some of the information he gave to the police seems to indicate that he was also being protected by the former cabinet chief.
One example is a photo of him and Schembri taken in the office of the former prime minister just days after Theuma hired the presumed assassins to kill Galizia. At that time, Theuma had been given a fictitious government job, which was confirmed by a work contract shared with the authorities and that Schembri denies having ever been aware of. The intermediary also claims that in the days after the arrest of the alleged killers, he was visited by a close aide of the former prime minister who asked him to send them messages in prison. These meetings have been confirmed by other witnesses. Schembri admitted to knowing the aide, but denies “sending him to meet Theuma or discussing the murder with him.”
Three years after the death of Galizia — who has become an icon of the fight against corruption — it’s still unclear what will come of the judicial imbroglio in a country where corruption has infiltrated the highest tiers of power. The Maltese justice system, in and of itself, could have its own surprises, since helping erase evidence in a murder case is not considered a criminal offense on the island. It’s in this context of uncertainty — and distrust in judicial institutions — that Galizia’s family members created a foundation in her memory, the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, that aims to continue her work and put pressure on the Maltese authorities to continue the investigation.
“If I had to leave things to the police or the prosecution, that would lead nowhere,” said Matthew, Galizia’s oldest son, who has taken on the burden of his mother’s anti-corruption fight and fought to shine a light on her murder. “We have to fight for justice, for my mother’s murder and against the corruption that led to it to. You could think that the police are going to do their job, but they’re not, unless they’re constantly being scrutinized.”
As the case dragged on, Europol also threatened to pull its investigation. The European police agency did not wish to comment, but said that it had “dedicated hundreds of man-days in operational support” and is still actively involved in the investigation.
In July, another tragic turn nearly threatened to put an end to the case for good. Theuma, on whose shoulders rest the burden of the evidence, attempted to kill himself. He was found bathed in his own blood, his throat lacerated and his abdomen pierced by several knife stabs. Although he was in a high security house under police protection, and he was scheduled to testify the following day, several sources confirmed that it was indeed a suicide attempt. They invoked his fragile psychological condition due to the pressure of the recent events, as well as his suicidal thoughts. His vocal cords are damaged and it’s unsure when he will be able to testify in court on the most recent spate of recordings.
On his hospital bed sits a note, written with the same capital letters used in his confession. This time, the piece of paper reads: “I hope Daphne’s children will forgive me.”