A judge in Malta has sentenced two brothers to 40 years in prison each after they abruptly reversed course and pleaded guilty to the car-bomb murder of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, which had shocked Europe and triggered angry protests in Malta.
Hours earlier, at the start of the trial on Friday in a Valletta courthouse, George Degiorgio, 59, and Alfred Degiorgio, 57, had entered not-guilty pleas over the death of Caruana Galizia in the blast as she drove near her home on October 16, 2017.
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“This is an important step forward, to deliver justice in a case that represents a dark chapter in Malta’s history,” said a statement released by Prime Minister Robert Abela’s office shortly after the sentencing.
One of her sons, Matthew Caruana Galizia, told reporters, “I’m relieved that they have been convicted and sentenced. Now, it’s about the remaining cases,” he said, referring to the prosecution of other defendants.
But he said the five years it took to reach this stage of justice for his mother was “far too long”.
The trial judge, Edwina Grima, retired to chambers after the change of plea before announcing the sentences an hour later.
The two defendants were also ordered to pay 50,000 euros ($48,600) apiece from the money they received as a result of the crime, as well as court costs.
They could have faced a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Prosecutors alleged that the brothers were hired by a top Maltese businessman with government ties. That businessman has been charged and will be tried separately.
Bringing the trial to an abrupt close, the Degiorgio brothers entered guilty pleas to all of the following charges: wilful homicide; causing an explosion which resulted in the death of a person; illicit possession of explosives; criminal conspiracy; promoting, constituting, organising or financing an organisation with a view to commit criminal offences, and active participation in a conspiracy.
In the run-up to the trial, the Degiorgio brothers had denied the charges. A third suspect, Vincent Muscat, avoided a trial after earlier changing his plea to guilty. Muscat is serving a 15-year sentence.
But at Friday’s start of the trial, Alfred Degiorgio pleaded not guilty while his brother declared that he had nothing to say which the court interpreted as a not-guilty plea.
It was not immediately clear why the defendants abruptly reversed themselves.
The brothers had unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a pardon in exchange for naming bigger alleged conspirators, including a former minister whose identity has not been revealed.
The long-awaited trial comes after an independent inquiry conducted by one serving and two retired judges, who unveiled a culture of impunity created by the highest echelons of power within the government of the time.
The result of the inquiry, published in July last year, suggested that the “tentacles of impunity” stretching from regulatory bodies to the police led to a “collapse in the rule of law”.
It also said the state had failed to take reasonable steps to avoid real and immediate risks to Caruana Galizia’s life. It was clear, read the report, that the assassination was either intrinsically or directly linked to Caruana Galizia’s investigative work.
Much of the case was built around testimony and phone conversation recordings by the murder plot middleman, Melvin Theuma, who was granted a presidential pardon in return for information late in 2019.
He alleged the plot was commissioned by top businessman Yorgen Fenech, who led a consortium that was controversially awarded a government contract to build a power station in 2015.
Fenech was arrested in November 2019 and is also awaiting trial.
Caruana Galizia had revealed the existence of a secret company which allegedly was meant to funnel funds to Panama-registered companies belonging to then-energy minister Konrad Mizzi and the government chief of staff, Keith Schembri. No evidence that money changed hands has been produced.
A Reuters investigation after her death had established that the company belonged to Fenech.
Fenech’s arrest led to the resignation of Schembri and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Both deny any involvement in the journalist’s murder and have not been prosecuted.
The fifth anniversary of the murder will be marked with a rally on Sunday which will be addressed by European Parliament President Roberta Metsola.