Robert Abela is facing yet another massive dilemma. Vince Muscat (Il-Koħħu), who has pleaded guilty to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, is now pointing fingers at a sitting minister who he says was involved in a ‘big job’, believed to be the infamous 2010 failed heist on HSBC’s headquarters in Qormi.
The problem is that he hasn’t named this minister and seems to be holding this information close to his chest in return for a pardon.
With so much at stake and with every word being scrutinised by the main players in the game, this is how we’ve come to the present moment.
1st July 2010:
Three armed robbers wearing false moustaches and wigs break into HSBC’s Qormi headquarters and manage to hold an on-duty police officer hostage, but are foiled by police officers who arrive in time. A shootout ensues, with one of the robbers slightly injured, but they manage to getaway.
Karl Stagno Navarra, back then a MaltaToday journalist, reports that police suspect it was an inside job, seeing as the robbers had somehow managed to gain electronic access into the first part of a highly secure area of the bank which leads to the vaults. A number of HSBC employees are reportedly interrogated by police.
7th July 2010:
Vince Muscat and Darren Debono (not the suspected fuel smuggling lynchpin) are charged with a range of offences, including aggravated theft, the attempted murder of two police officers, and holding officers against their will.
Former Economy Minister Chris Cardona (back then just a backbencher) and David Gatt, who work in the same legal office, represent Muscat while criminal lawyer Joe Giglio (now also a PN candidate) represents Debono. A third alleged accomplice, Fabio Psaila, would be charged a few months later.
10th November 2010:
Four months after their arrest, Muscat and Debono are released on bail, with the Attorney General warning that the courts have just released “a dangerous suspect”, a reference to Muscat.
Over ten years later, the case against Muscat remains ongoing in court.
7th December 2010:
Muscat’s lawyer David Gatt is sensationally charged with masterminding the HSBC heist, as well as two other hold-ups. Police describe Gatt as the ‘Capo dei Capi’ (boss of bosses) and compare him to Sicily’s notorious mafioso Toto’ Riina.
Gatt had been discharged from the police in 2001 after tapped phone conversations found he was talking to known criminals. However, he denied any wrongdoing, arguing the tapped phone-calls were illegally obtained and instigated legal action.
A few weeks before his arrest, an appeals court ruled in favour of Gatt and ordered his reinstatement to the police force on a point of procedure, prompting Gatt to demand an apology from former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami and the resignation of then police commissioner John Rizzo.
18th January 2017:
The court case against Gatt drags on for years, with stunning allegations portraying him as someone with a fixation for the Mafia.
Most bizarre of all was probably former police officer Mario Portelli’s testimony that Gatt had performed a mafia-style initiation for him by placing a holy picture in his hand, setting it alight, and then cutting the palm of his hand with a knife to draw blood to the picture.
However, a court eventually finds Gatt not guilty and dismisses Portelli’s testimony as non-credible. This extensive MaltaToday report explains the procedures in a lot of detail, but Portelli has stood by his version of events.
16th October 2017:
Daphne Caruana Galizia is assassinated.
5th December 2017:
Vince Muscat, along with brothers Alfred and George Degiorgio, are arrested at their hideout, the Marsa potato shed, on suspicion of assassinating Caruana Galizia. It would later transpire that they had been informed in advance that they were going to be arrested.
23rd April 2018:
According to lawyer Arthur Azzopardi, this is the date Vince Muscat names Caruana Galizia murder middleman Melvin Theuma to superintendent Keith Arnaud as he started negotiating some kind of clemency. Muscat argues that it was only thanks to the information he provided that police were able to identify, and later arrest, Theuma.
Arnaud, then police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar, and then deputy commissioner Silvio Valletta discuss this with then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief of staff Keith Schembri. However, the information somehow leaks to the Degiorgio brothers, who confront Vince Muscat about it in prison.
The information was also leaked to Yorgen Fenech and Melvin Theuma; in fact Theuma started recording conversations to give himself some kind of security after finding out that Muscat was speaking to the police.
8th May 2018:
Vince Muscat files urgent constitutional proceedings to delay his trial for the HSBC heist, warning all the negative publicity surrounding his alleged role in the Caruana Galizia murder will prejudice jurors against him.
Acting upon the advice of Arthur Azzopardi, Vince Muscat’s wife and daughter confront Joseph Muscat at a Christmas greeting for the public at Castille and ask him about the status of the proposed pardon. However, the Prime Minister refuses to speak to them.
Strangely enough, according to Joseph Muscat, he was also greeted by Melvin Theuma right before Vince Muscat’s family approached him.
26th January 2019:
Mario Portelli publishes a Facebook video in which he claims he has evidence linking David Gatt and Chris Cardona to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Soon after, he is admitted to Mount Carmel.
August and September 2019:
During a recorded conversation with Johann Cremona, Melvin Theuma is informed that Vince Muscat had named him to the police in return for clemency. However, a month later, Cremona tells Theuma that Muscat was going to change his version of events.
Arthur Azzopardi denies instructing Muscat to recant his previous statement, telling MaltaToday that he “definitely did not tell Keith Arnaud that his client was reneging on the statement that Theuma was the middleman”.
6th October 2019:
Times of Malta reveals that police have identified a major businessman as one of three potential key suspects in the Caruana Galizia murder, along with a man connected with the gambling scene and a man connected to the smuggling underworld.
The story states that police believe the case to be extremely complex and “have not ruled out the possibility that two masterminds commissioned the murder separately.”
It also includes an update about Vince Muscat’s case, namely that Arthur Azzopardi had drawn up a list of high-profile witnesses for his client to summon, including Joseph Muscat, Keith Schembri, Owen Bonnici, Lawrence Cutajar, and then Attorney General Peter Grech.
That very same day, activist-blogger Manuel Delia expands this issue further, revealing that Vincent Muscat had named an intermediary to the police and suggesting Azzopardi wanted to summon those witnesses to confirm his client was indeed cooperating with the authorities.
7th October 2019:
The very next day, police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar voices serious scepticism to Arthur Azzopardi about Muscat’s request for a pardon.
The lawyer would later quote Cutajar “verbatim” as saying that “the word from above is that his testimony is hearsay”.
That same day, Joseph Muscat is questioned by The Times about Muscat’s request for a pardon.
Although he doesn’t confirm or deny that a pardon has been refused, the Prime Minister says historic experience shows pardons tend to lead to suspects walking free.
19th November 2019:
Joseph Muscat announces that he has single-handedly authorised a conditional presidential pardon for a middleman, later revealed to be Melvin Theuma, in return for naming the mastermind behind the Caruana Galizia murder.
Yorgen Fenech is arrested while trying to sail out of Malta the next day, triggering a dramatic political crisis that would force Muscat to resign as Prime Minister.
30th November 2019:
Vince Muscat, though his new lawyer Marc Sant, formally asks President George Vella for a pardon in return for all the information he knows on “various facts”.
Muscat says that it’s thanks to him that police identified Theuma in the first place and voices concern that his initial clemency request may have ended up in the hands of a person or people who may have an interest in delaying or diverting the investigations.
He tells the President he has a right for his request to be examined by people who don’t have a direct or indirect interest on whether the mercy is granted and the conditions that may be attached to it. It’s a coy statement, for now, but its implications will soon become known.
29th September 2020:
Marc Sant files a court application, confirming that Vince Muscat intends to implicate “prominent” people, including politicians, in major crimes in return for clemency.
He confirms he wants everyone who served in Cabinet since the 2017 election to testify in his pardon request, and accuses the police of dragging their feet on preparing a report on this request in the interest of said prominent people.
31st October 2020:
Nationalist MP and Caruana Galizia family lawyer Jason Azzopardi says in an interview that Vince Muscat has implicated a sitting minister, who isn’t a lawyer, in a “very serious” crime and that Prime Minister Robert Abela had known about this since March 2020.
The next day, both Times of Malta and MaltaToday report that this was a reference to the botched HSBC heist of so many years ago. Both reports state that while Muscat knows the identity of the minister, he hasn’t identified him to the police yet.
Robert Abela turns the tables on Jason Azzopardi, accusing him of trying to condition the police and pledging not to take decisions on the basis of information gleaned by the MP from what an “arch-criminal” allegedly said.
While no name is published, the Nationalist Party’s media pounce on Minister Carmelo Abela, who was an HSBC manager at the time of the heist, to ask him if he’s ready to “condemn” the alleged minister if the story is true. Abela refuses to respond, referring the NET journalist to the Prime Minister’s comment.
3rd November 2020:
Carmelo Abela categorically denies having anything to do with the HSBC heist, challenging Jason Azzopardi to stop “playing games and beating around the bush”.
4th November 2020:
The next day, Vince Muscat files a judicial protest, warning that the pardon request he had filed a year earlier had been ignored and expressing his concerns that a sitting Minister he intends to implicate might be involved in Cabinet’s decision on whether his request should be accepted or refused.
He also claims Robert Abela’s reference to him as an “arch-criminal” has exposed the Prime Minister’s inability to act objectively in this request, and refers to his past as lawyer of brothers Robert and Adrian Agius.
13th January 2021:
Cabinet formally rejects Muscat’s request for a pardon for his role in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
23rd February 2021:
Cabinet approves a pardon for Muscat in exchange for information about the 2015 murder of lawyer Carmel Chircop, who was shot dead at a Birkirkara garage complex. Unlike the Melvin Theuma pardon, the government publishes this pardon in full.
Muscat also pleads guilty to the assassination of Caruana Galizia, is sentenced to 15 years in prison, and agrees to testify in the case.
Muscat implicates George Degiorgio, Jamie Vella, and Adrian Agius in the murder of Chircop, and implicates Robert Agius (Adrian Agius’ brother) and Jamie Vella in the murder of Caruana Galizia.
16th March 2021:
Testifying in the case against the Degiorgios, Muscat is questioned by Jason Azzopardi about how he implicated a sitting minister in a “big job”, believed to be a reference to the HSBC heist.
Muscat says that Chris Cardona and a sitting minister were involved, but doesn’t name the sitting minister, with the magistrate telling him only to name people in relation to the Caruana Galizia murder.
Following this sitting, Robert Abela speaks to Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa, who informs him that Muscat hasn’t named the minister he’s referring to.
During this sitting and an earlier one, Muscat also implicates his former lawyers Cardona and Gatt in the Caruana Galizia murder, as well as a failed plot to kill the journalist back in 2015. Both Cardona and Gatt deny this.
20th March 2021:
Vince Muscat requests a second presidential pardon in return for information on three major crimes, believed to be an assassination and two armed robbery attempts.
21st March 2021:
Robert Abela says he has no evidence to dismiss any of his ministers and challenges Jason Azzopardi to utilise his parliamentary privilege to name the sitting minister Muscat is referring to.
He also calls for caution on granting a carte blanche pardon to major criminals, noting that their requests for pardons imply their own involvement in organised crime.
23rd March 2021:
Jason Azzopardi delivers a parliamentary speech, in which he claims the sitting minister has been accused of providing the robbers with replicas of the keys to HSBC’s headquarters, which allowed them to enter the bank, as well as footage of the bank to show them how to access the vaults.
He also alleges that Chris Cardona had been arrested in connection with the failed heist and that Joseph Muscat had appointed him to his Cabinet despite knowing about it. Cardona dismisses Azzopardi’s allegation as a blatant lie.
And now the pressure is on. Robert Abela finds himself in an extremely uncomfortable position of knowing one of his Cabinet members may have helped organise a hold-up but aware that no one has actually named the minister.
So far, Abela has tried to turn this into a partisan tit-for-tat, accusing Jason Azzopardi of playing dirty political games and challenging him to put his money where his mouth is.
However, Muscat now wants a pardon for his role in the heist, and his request will have to be discussed and decided by Cabinet, which includes the minister he intends to implicate.
Robert Abela has said anyone implicated must play no part in the pardon discussion, but even if Muscat is telling the truth, it’s unlikely that any Cabinet members will volunteer themselves out of the room, for obvious reasons.
This leaves the ball in Vince Muscat’s court and his options are now to leave the pardon in the hands of a potentially compromised Cabinet, challenge the pardoning process itself, or name the minister he is referring to.
It’s complicated by the fact that Muscat is still fighting the HSBC case ten years on, yet another indictment of the sluggish process of the Maltese courts, and will surely want to ensure that by speaking to police, he won’t end up compromising his own case.
Eleven years after robbers broke into HSBC’s headquarters and police suspected an inside job, we might finally be getting to the bottom of it.
What do you make of this saga?