Malta’s cabinet of ministers is under renewed pressure as a result of sensational claims by the men accused of murdering Daphne Caruana Galizia that sitting and former ministers are linked to high-profile crimes.
State witness Vince Muscat has indicated that at least two members of the Joseph Muscat cabinet were involved in the 2010 failed heist on the HSBC headquarters, with his testimony harking back to claims made by a former police constable.
Mario Portelli, or PC99 as he became known throughout the course of proceedings, had claimed that the heist was the work of an organised crime group that was behind a series of other crimes. Portelli had claimed that the group was headed by former policeman, now lawyer, David Gatt.
Gatt was charged and eventually acquitted of all charges and while doubts were cast on Portelli’s credibility and his far-fetched claims, there remains a lingering suspicion that he was right about more than he received credit for.
Both Muscat, and his co-conspirators Alfred and George Degiorgio, have in recent weeks requested presidential pardons to reveal information about a host of high-profile crimes they claim to have had direct involvement in.
Muscat, known informally as il-Kohhu, has already been granted one pardon and has turned state witness in the Caruana Galizia murder case, as well as the case of the 2015 murder of lawyer Carmel Chircop.
His evidence has seen alleged bomb-suppliers Robert Agius, Adrian Agius, and Jamie Vella arrested and charged in court, setting the stage for what could come if the state turns to Muscat once again.
1. What information has been revealed so far?
In court, Muscat has linked former Economy Minister Chris Cardona to the murder of Caruana Galizia, detailing how Alfred Degiorgio claimed he was fed information on Caruana Galizia before her murder and information on the ensuing investigation through the aid of Cardona.
He has also claimed that Cardona’s associate, lawyer David Gatt, would even meet the three men at the infamous Marsa potato shed. On one occasion, Gatt even mimicked the sound of an explosion, with Degiorgio allegedly telling Muscat that Gatt was informed by the plot from Schembri. According to Muscat, Cardona and Gatt were also involved in a separate plot to murder the journalist back in 2015.
Muscat has also linked Cardona to a past “big job” involving the Degiorgios, which he has said also involved a sitting minister and nine others.
Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi this week claimed that the sitting minister was Carmelo Abela. He has denied the allegations and filed libel proceedings.
2. What are they requesting and what are they offering?
Muscat, who still faces charges over his alleged involvement in the failed 2010 HSBC heist, has now requested a second pardon for his role in “two failed armed robberies” and an assassination, in exchange for the information he has.
Days after Muscat’s request, the Degiorgio brothers put in a request of their own. Their lawyer William Cuschieri has in court often objected to Muscat’s testimony, insisting it was simply hearsay.
The Degiorgios’ request states that unlike Muscat they are able to provide ‘tangible, and not hearsay evidence’.
The two brothers have requested immunity from all crimes they may have been involved in.
Both have promised to name a former minister who they claim was a mastermind in the Caruana Galizia assassination.
Alfred Degiorgio has also promised to identify a middleman in the plot, as well as information on the 2010 HSBC heist, in which he too has promised to implicate a sitting and a former minister.
On the other hand, George Degiorgio has offered information on two car bomb attacks. He has also requested that money laundering charges against his partner be dropped and that she too be granted a pardon.
3. Should the men even be granted a pardon?
Both Muscat’s and the Degiorgios’ testimony could help the police make progress in other serious cases, and there is a public interest in knowing the identity of members of the executive who are linked to organised crime.
On the other hand, however, it isn’t certain that this would be enough to secure convictions and could result in many of those involved in the Caruana Galizia murder walking free with nothing gained.
This was one of the primary concerns raised by the Caruana Galizia family in its opposition to any pardons being granted. Instead, the family has insisted that the police follow the money trail and solve the case without rewarding criminals with a pardon.
The fact that the police have made little progress in the ten years since the crime, suggests that testimony from a pardon might not even be enough to secure a conviction.
4. So what was the HSBC heist about?
The only crime it has been confirmed that the accused want to reveal information about is the 2010 failed HSBC heist.
In June that year, the police responded to a call about suspicious activity at the HSBC headquarters nearby. Police arriving at the scene spotted a suspicious car which left the scene. They chased it and eventually lost it before returning to find three criminals emerging from the bank. A shoot-out ensued but the three men succeeded in getting away.
Police have long suspected that the attempted robbery was the result of an inside job, given that the would-be robbers would have needed insider knowledge of the bank and its security codes to make their way through the building the way they did.
The daring robbery wasn’t Malta’s first. Months earlier, in January 2010, an attempt was made to steal €2.3 million, which was being transported in an armoured security van. Three vans, a pick-up truck, a motorcycle and a bulldozer were all used in an attempt to gain access to the van.
Speaking in parliament last month following Muscat’s claims in court, Azzopardi claimed that Cardona had been arrested over his alleged involvement in the 2010 HSBC heist.
Cardona has in turn accused Azzopardi of lying, admitting however to having been questioned by the police as part of their investigations into David Gatt. Gatt shared an office with Cardona at the time that he was charged with masterminding the heist.
In addition to Gatt, Muscat and another two men named Fabio Psaila and Darren Debono, were both charged over the robbery. The police have not succeeded in securing a conviction, despite clear indications of the two men’s involvement, including the fact that Debono received treatment for gunshot wounds shortly after.
5. The case of Mario Portelli, PC 99
The case against Gatt – a former police officer who was sacked from the force over allegations that he was acting as an informant for criminals – was closed in 2017 when he was acquitted of the charges against him.
The charges against him were largely based on Mario Portelli’s testimony.
Portelli had made a series of fantastic claims about Gatt, including that he was the head of a local organised crime group and styled himself in the image of Italian mobster Toto Rina.
He had also claimed that Gatt had said he wanted to kill former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami and linked him to several crimes.
The case against Gatt came apart after concerns started to be raised about Portelli’s credibility. Over the course of proceedings, it had been revealed that Portelli had been boarded out of the force as a result of mental health problems.
Portelli’s claims were straight out of a film and already quite hard to believe. They became impossible to believe once it became clearer that Portelli was struggling with some form of mental health problems.
Magistrate Antonio Micallef Trigona, in acquitting Gatt, had lambasted the prosecution for its decision to charge Gatt on the strength of Portelli’s testimony.
Despite this, there were various aspects of Portelli’s testimony that were corroborated, or at least not definitively disproved.
In 2019, Portelli had published a letter sent to the police in 2016 at the time when the court was hearing evidence against Gatt and in which he reminded the inspector in the case of six of his claims which he said had been corroborated.
This included the fact that Gatt’s number had been saved as “Toto” in the phone of witness Raymond Abela, as well as the fact that medical doctor John Zammit Montebello testified to having received a phone call from Gatt who had requested that he treat Darren Debono. He had also testified to having been approached by Gatt who had told him not to mention his name in his testimony.
During the same period Portelli also made the headlines after uploading several sensational and seemingly conspiratorial posts on social media, including claims that Cardona was behind the plot to assassinate Caruana Galizia and that former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was linked to the company Egrant.
Portelli had also uploaded a post urging convicted criminal Romeo Bone to come clean with the authorities and to tell them all he knew. Bone was one of the members of Gatt’s gang and Portelli accused him of stalking him.
Bone was the victim of a car bomb attack in February 2017 in which he lost both his legs. The bombing has been referenced by both state witness Melvin Theuma and Muscat in connection to the Degiorgios.
It also isn’t clear whether that bombing is one which George Degiorgio has promised to reveal information about should he be granted a pardon.
6. What happens next?
Whether or not any of Portelli’s claims were accurate is debatable but it is difficult to say they were all wrong.
It is clear that most of the major crimes committed in Malta are in many ways interlinked and often carried out by the same, relatively small group of very-well connected individuals spanning all strata of Maltese society.
Undeniable progress has been made in the last months, both in the Caruana Galizia and seemingly in other cases, but this only highlights the inability, or lack of willingness, by the Maltese police to investigate the most serious crimes.
What remains to be seen now is whether the latest developments are the start of Malta’s equivalent of Italy’s Mani Pulite scandal – which saw a nationwide investigation into political corruption and the mafia – or whether it will all fizzle out into nothing, as has happened in the past.
Share this with someone that needs to read it