VALLETTA – Some 4,000 angry protesters in Malta who want the prime minister to immediately step down briefly blocked him and his party’s lawmakers from leaving parliament on Monday, amid high public pressure over an investigative journalist’s car-bomb murder.
Police prevented anti-government demonstrators gathered near parliament’s entrance, some of whom were shouting “Prison!” and “Assassins!” from any surge forward, and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was able to leave from a secondary exit.
The country’s main opposition Nationalist party announced a boycott of parliament for as long as Muscat remains in power. Nationalist lawmakers left the building tossing fake currency bills in the air Monday. The fake money has been used by protesters as a symbol of corruption.
Muscat announced in a speech to the nation Sunday night that he would resign in January amid citizen outcry over the two-year-old investigation into the 2017 killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia, who delved into suspected corrupt dealings in political and business circles in the tiny European Union nation.
But Muscat’s speech seemed almost designed to provoke, rather than placate, citizens worried about rule of law. He cited the journalist’s “negative” qualities and defended police officials, in apparent response to contentions by Caruana Galizia’s family and supporters that investigative authorities failed to diligently probe any ties between the murder and the Labor Party government.
The slain woman’s family filed a legal action on Monday against Muscat, asking that he desist from further involvement in the murder probe and place his own alleged involvement in the case under the court’s scrutiny.
Muscat’s top aide, Keith Schembri, was arrested after his name was mentioned to police during their investigation, effectively linking the assassination to the prime minister’s office.
On Monday opposition Nationalist leader Adrian Delia seized on Muscat’s defiant insistence to remain in office several more weeks.
“Joseph Muscat wants to keep manipulating the police investigation to save himself and his best friend,” Delia contended. He was referring to Schembri, who quit his post last week shortly before he was questioned by police as a person of interest. Schembri, who was later released, has said he’s extraneous to the case.
On Saturday, a prominent businessman was charged as the bombing’s organizer. The suspect, Yorgen Fenech, a hotel and casino owner, has pleaded innocent in court.
Malta’s president, George Vella, has called on the nation to stay calm, saying after Muscat’s televised speech: “These are not normal times, and what is happening now is without precedent.”
Vella, who is considered a figure above the political fray, also urged Maltese to show “the strength of democracy.”
An influential body of lawyers, the Chamber of Advocates, said Muscat’s putting off his resignation by a month “seriously risks tainting the integrity and credibility of the investigative process.”
On Tuesday, the European Parliament opens a two-day fact-finding mission in Malta centered on the investigation of the murder. The investigation’s handling has raised questions about rule of law in the nation, especially the efficiency and independence of police and the judiciary.
Last year, a separate EU parliamentary mission raised concern about police handling of the case.