So there we have it. After almost four years of constant delays, we now know that Keith Schembri doesn’t want to speak about 17 Black and alleged kickbacks because, by doing so, he could incriminate himself.
His lawyer’s admission in court this morning, as part of a libel suit Schembri himself had instigated to prove his innocence, puts the Prime Minister’s chief of staff in an untenable position. Looking back, here are all the tactics Schembri used to avoid speaking about the issue up until this moment.
1. ‘Wait for my statement’ (28th February 2016)
A day after his infamous Panama company was first revealed by now-assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, Schembri refused to answer questions by a Times of Malta journalist, telling him that he will release a public statement imminently.
2. ‘I will sue Simon Busuttil’ (28th February 2016)
The public statement turned out to be a pledge to sue then-Opposition leader Simon Busuttil for libel for claiming that his Panama company was set up for nefarious purposes. This libel suit was used to back up his insistence of innocence; after all, why would he choose to face down the Opposition leader in court if he wasn’t convinced the truth was on his side?
3. ‘I have sued Simon Busuttil’ (1st April 2016)
Schembri formally sued Busuttil a few weeks later, after the Opposition leader lashed out at him by name in an anti-corruption protest he had organised outside Castille.
4. ‘I swear on the cross that I’m innocent’ (16th October 2017)
Testifying in his libel suit, Schembri resorted to religion, swearing on the cross that he never received kickbacks. He said that his businesses are doing well and that he wouldn’t have agreed to become the Prime Minister’s chief of staff out of financial interest.
Schembri also pounced on Busuttil’s refusal to outright call him corrupt in court, warning the former PN leader that he will keep on chasing him if he insists on alleging that he is corrupt.
This testimony also happened to be the last blogpost Caruana Galizia ever wrote before she was assassinated by a car bomb.
5. ‘I didn’t know I had to come to court’ (22nd March 2018)
Schembri’s cross-examination date was postponed by several months after the Prime Minister’s chief of staff failed to turn up to court. Schembri later argued that Simon Busuttil had never filed a “formal request in court” for him to take the witness stand and accused the former PN leader of believing that “rules apply to all except himself”.
6. ‘Simon Busuttil wants to delay my testimony’ (3rd May 2018)
Schembri’s cross-examination was postponed again after a court decided it should await the outcome of an application filed by Busuttil and PN MEP David Casa for a new magisterial inquiry in the wake of fresh details published by the Daphne Project about 17 Black.
Schembri turned the tables on Busuttil, stating he was prepared to testify and expose all the lies the former PN leader had maliciously spread but that Busuttil’s legal manouvering forced the court to postpone his testimony.
“Why doesn’t Busuttil want me to testify?” he tweeted.
Today I was again prepared to testify and expose all the lies maliciously spread by @SimonBusuttil, but his repeated maneuvers led the Court to order that my testimony be postponed to a later date. Why doesn’t Busuttil want me to testify?
— Keith Schembri (@keithaschembri) May 3, 2018
7. ‘There are magisterial inquiries ongoing’ (5th June 2018)
Schembri’s cross-examination was postponed yet again, this time after his lawyers told the magistrate that his client didn’t want to testify in his own libel suit before first testifying at three ongoing magisterial inquiries over the same matter.
He then repeated this excuse as he was chased down Valletta by a Times of Malta journalist, at one point also dismissing the 17 Black-related questions as “stupid”.
While the law certainly precludes people from talking about what goes on during magisterial inquiries, the opening of a magisterial inquiry certainly doesn’t prohibit people from trying to clear their name in the public arena before its conclusion. Just look at how Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had so frequently denounced Caruana Galizia’s Egrant story as a lie and challenged Simon Busuttil to come forward with the proof while a magisterial inquiry was ongoing.
8. ‘I should not be asked about 17 Black’ (24th January 2019)
Schembri’s lawyers insisted that their client’s cross-examination shouldn’t include any questions on 17 Black because Busuttil hadn’t mentioned the Dubai company when Schembri had sued him for libel back in 2016.
Busuttil couldn’t have mentioned 17 Black back then because it was only in April 2018 that an email was published which named it as one of two Dubai companies which were supposed to transfer money to Schembri’s and Konrad Mizzi’s Panama companies.
However, magistrate Victor Asciak dismissed this request and said it would not be upholding any further requests for adjournments other than for health reasons.
9. ‘The magistrate represented my advisers… he should recuse himself’ (11th November 2019)
After being forced to undergo a cross-examination, Schembri attempted to get magistrate Victor Asciak to recuse himself, and this because he had once legally represented Nexia BT, the financial services advisory firm which helped Schembri set up his Panama company and which named 17 Black as a target company.
However, the magistrate turned it down, arguing that he had represented Nexia BT over nine years ago over an issue totally unrelated to the libel suit.
10. ‘I want to choose which court to testify at first’ (11th November 2019)
After the magistrate turned down this request, Schembri again went down the route of arguing that he has a right not to be cross-examined in his own libel case until he first testifies magisterial inquiries looking into the same issue. However, his request, along with a subsequent request to appeal the magistrate’s decision, was turned down.
However, Schembri refused to be cross-examined, insisting that his lawyers have advised him not to answer any questions related to ongoing inquiries. Magistrate Asciak ordered him to testify or face court sanctions but the chief of staff’s lawyer said his client should be free not to risk potential self-incrimination.
11. ‘I am dropping my libel suit’ (11th November 2019)
With no way out to avoid answering questions about 17 Black, Schembri opted for the nuclear option and withdrew his own libel suit, a strategy Konrad Mizzi had deployed earlier this year.
As the political backlash continues, it must be pointed out Schembri had sued for libel out of his own free will, ostensibly to clear his name from lies and malicious allegations. However, when push came to shove, he clearly thought that answering questions was too high a price to pay for clearing his name.
This obviously begs the question as to why Schembri sued for libel in the first place. Did he really think that he’d be able to win his case without being cross-questioned or that the courts would bar the defendant from using evidence that emerged after the lawsuit was filed?
Or was this just another abuse of Malta’s libel laws, an absolute waste of the courts’ time for a case that was never intended to be won in the first place?
At the very least, this case has proved that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff is indeed scared to answer questions in public about 17 Black and alleged kickbacks. And that behaviour is an answer in and of itself.