Death of Journalist Still Echoes in Malta

The assassination six months ago of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia sent shockwaves around the world.

The country’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, stands accused of allowing corruption to go unpunished, of weakening the police and the judiciary, of allowing an environment in which her killing became possible.

But it goes much deeper than that. The EU must now decide how to deal with its smallest member state — an island that appears to have become a magnet for criminals, and a gateway for them into the rest of the continent.

The Maltese investigation into Daphne’s killing has made progress. Three men are in custody. But her family has little hope that her country’s authorities will seriously pursue those who commissioned the murder. After all, Daphne had made enemies everywhere — including at the very top.

It began on October 16, 2017.

Daphne spent her last morning working at her dining room table, sitting opposite her eldest son Matthew. The air was still and heavy with the scent of wild fennel. The densely planted garden of her hilltop home in the village of Bidnija, northern Malta, muffled any noise from the road. She was absorbed in her work, and the hours passed unnoticed.

Just before 3 pm she hastily gathered her things – she was late for an appointment at the bank. She rushed out, came straight back for some forgotten checks, and then got into her car.

But as her Peugeot 108 headed down the village road, she was being watched. For her killers, the moment had come. Activated by a remote control, a bomb which had been placed inside her car, under her driver’s seat, went off.

The explosion was witnessed by Francis Sant, a man who lives nearby, who was driving in the opposite direction. He recalls a small initial explosion and white smoke.

A moment later, there was a second, larger blast. The car caught fire and careened off the road into a field.

“I am going to say something that I have never said before,” Sant told reporters. “Because I felt that I shouldn’t say it. … I even heard her screaming. … But as soon as she screamed she became a ball of fire.”

The explosion was so loud it shook the windows of the family home.

In a cold panic, Daphne’s son Matthew ran barefoot to the front door.

His neighbors were already outside. He sprinted past them down the dirt track that leads to the village road, barely aware of the stones cutting into his feet.

He remembers seeing a crater in the road. Trees were on fire. He saw glass, and plastic, and pieces of flesh.

He couldn’t see the car at first, but he could hear it because the horn was still blaring. He followed the smoke and the noise, all the while hoping it was someone else’s vehicle.

But then he recognized the license plate. It was his mother’s car. Inside he saw nothing but flames. No sign of a body, not even a silhouette.

Wanting to pry open what was left of the doors, he searched the ground for a stick. He heard sirens. The police were coming.

“Then I saw a leg,” he said. “And I remember thinking to myself, like OK … there is a leg on the ground. There are body parts up there. Obviously no one could have survived this, so it’s pointless.”

Soon, Daphne’s sister arrived on the scene. After a series of frantic phone calls, they were joined by Matthew’s father and one of his two younger brothers. Daphne’s third son flew back from London overnight.

The ordeal was just beginning. For the next two weeks, the family hunkered down in Bidnija, avoiding the television crews. The days passed in a blur.

But it was Matthew’s precise recollection of what his mother was doing in the minutes before she was killed that led to an apparent breakthrough in the murder inquiry.

Last December, in an early morning swoop on the seedy port area of Marsa, a town near the island’s capital Valleta, police arrested ten people in connection with the murder. Among those were three known criminals: brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio, 56 and 53, and their associate Vincent Muscat, 56.

“They were the kind of people who, even in the middle of summer, they give you a chill,” says an old man who comes to the port area most days. “They used to come here at the beginning or the end of the day. Sometimes, they had visitors at night.”

In the chaos of the raid, the man remembers, he had taken fright and bolted the door of the warehouse where he likes to spend his time. Officers forced their way in, arrested him, and searched the premises before letting him go.

But his drama was a sideshow. The focus of the operation was a large rusty shed just across the road, overlooking the blue expanse of Valletta’s Grand Harbor. Once used for storing potatoes, it now shelters the brightly painted rowing boats of the Marsa regatta club.

One end has been fenced off to enclose a sort of den. It’s outfitted with weightlifting benches, a barbecue, and a secure room built of stone, with a metal door and shutters. The heads and tails of dried marlin hang from a line.

It is in this lair that the arrests were made — at about 8:15 am on Dec. 4 last year. Security forces arrived by boat and a SWAT team stormed in from the road as a helicopter circled overhead.

The Degiorgio brothers were ordered at gunpoint to lie on the ground. Footage of the raid, shot from a soldier’s head camera, was released to the press.

The evidence that led police here had been compiled by chief investigator Keith Arnaud, a detective who actually knew Daphne — he had once tried to arrest her, according to Daphne’s own blog.

He has made his case against the three men in meticulous testimony before an examining magistrate, who is deciding whether the accused should stand trial.

Reviewed by the Guardian, Arnaud’s testimony shows how police zeroed in on the suspects thanks to help from the FBI and a team of forensic specialists from the Netherlands.

If the bomb had been triggered remotely, it had probably been linked to a mobile phone. So who was making calls that day, and where from?

The answers were provided by a major feat of computer processing, undertaken in the US, and complicated by the fact that the Vodafone cell tower in Bidnija was ‘off grid’ at the time of the murder.

FBI specialists sifted through all the calls redirected to other cell phone towers before they found what they were looking for: the numbers of two devices that appear to have been used to detonate the bomb.

The two SIM cards had been bought almost a year before the murder. The numbers only ever communicated with each other.

Further analysis revealed that one of the them was used in a basic Nokia handset; the second, which Arnaud calls “the God device,” was attached to a circuit board like those used to switch on lights or central heating by remote control. Or, in this case, it seems, to detonate a bomb.

Having apparently found the method for triggering the device, Arnaud’s team was unsure who had pressed the button.

George’s personal phone was already under surveillance by Maltese intelligence services at the time of the attack. Sources say this was in connection with another investigation.

Later, the other men’s personal numbers were also discovered.

Arnaud matched location data from the men’s mobiles with three other devices, thought to have been pre-paid, disposable cell phones known as “burners” acquired for the job. They were switched on for the first time on August 19, two months before the murder. They, too, only ever communicated with each other.

On the night before the killing, all three burners were in Bidnija. At 1:41 am, the circuit board SIM was switched on. It, too, remained in the village all night, as did Alfred’s burner and his personal phone.

Meanwhile, by the afternoon of the next day, the ‘God device’ — and George’s burner — were signaling to a cell phone tower that overlooked Valletta’s Grand Harbor. Arnaud realized they must have been aboard a boat.

CCTV footage revealed a small cabin cruiser with a distinctive green canvas hood in the bay at the time. The boat, called the Maya, is registered in the name of Alfred Degiorgio.

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