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Malta's PM on way out: I paid price for reporter's slaying

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Image Rene Rossignaud www.rossignaud.com

People crowd the Maltese Labour Party congress where party leader and Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat will deliver his farewell speech as Labour Party leader in Kordin, near Valletta, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. A new leader will be elected during the weekend. (AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud)

VALLETTA – Malta's prime minister told the nation Friday night that he had paid “the highest political price for a dark episode,” a reference to the assassination of an investigative journalist whose work targeted his government and whose death led to demands for his resignation.

In a farewell address to his Labor Party, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said he was “hurt” by what Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote when she was alive, “but I did not suffer as much as her family did” when a bomb blew up her car and killed her in 2017.

“I am sorry for what happened" to Caruana Galizia, Muscat added without referring to his former chief of staff being questioned and under investigation in the slaying.

Muscat, who is halfway through his second term, announced on Dec. 1 that he would resign as leader of the ruling Labor Party and prime minister amid increasing demands at home and abroad for accountability in the assassination.

He delayed his resignation by six weeks to let the Labor Party go through the process of electing a new leader.

Wildly cheered by Labor members during his speech, Muscat said he would remain in Parliament and keep working to improve human rights. During his tenure, the government introduced legal same-sex marriage.

In his remark about paying a personal political price for “a dark episode,” he did not directly mention the journalist's killing. He said that once he realized he could no longer ensure his presence in office was “positive” for Malta, he decided to quit.

His promise to step down failed to quell anti-government protests by Maltese angry over links between Muscat's office and the bomb blast that killed Caruana Galizia, whose anti-corruption reporting targeted members of the government.

A deputy premier and a lawmaker in his party are vying to replace him. The one picked to be Labor's new leader in a party election on Saturday will become prime minister, and Muscat will step aside as premier within days.

Both candidates — Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne and lawmaker Robert Abela — say they will work to regain the Maltese people's confidence in the government by upholding the rule of law.

But each candidate has stopped short of criticizing Muscat even as they promise to heal the country's reputation. Labor has a comfortable majority in Parliament.

Concerned European Union lawmakers who visited Malta after the journalist's slaying expressed concerns about the functioning of the tiny island nation's police and judicial systems.

Three men have been charged with murder for allegedly triggering the powerful car bomb that killed 53-year-old Caruana Galizia as she drove near her home on Oct. 16, 2017. No trial date has been set.

Days before Muscat announced he was stepping down both as party leader and prime minister, his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, was arrested and questioned in connection with Caruana Galizia's killing.

Schembri was later released but remains under investigation.

On Nov. 30, a day before Muscat told the nation he would leave office, a prominent Maltese businessman, Yorgen Fenech, was arraigned on charges that included complicity in the murder. He has pleaded innocent.

A hearing is expected later this month before a court decides whether Fenech should stand trial.

Loose financial and banking rules have made Malta an attractive place for money launderers.

The Panama Papers leak of documents revealed that Schembri and a then-Cabinet minister, Konrad Mizzi, secretively opened companies in Panama. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.