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Thursday January 23rd, 2020 3:23AM

Malta party backs leader amid protests over reporter’s death

By The Associated Press
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VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — Malta’s embattled prime minister on Sunday received a pledge of confidence from his Labor Party’s lawmakers hours before angry citizens staged their biggest protest yet to demand he resign over alleged links of his former top aide to the car bomb slaying of a Maltese anti-corruption journalist.

The ruling Labor Party parliamentary group expressed “unanimous support” for Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, in power since 2013, and “decisions he will be taking.”

Maltese media have said Muscat might stay in office until January, when a party congress must elect a new leader.

Close to 20,000 Maltese citizens jammed Republic Street outside the courthouse in what was by far the largest turnout so far in weeks of public outpouring of anger and disgust aimed at Muscat’s government.

His former chief of staff, Keith Schembri, who resigned last week, was arrested for questioning in the investigation of the 2017 killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Schembri was among government members targeted by her investigative reporting.

Schembri was released after questioning. He denies wrongdoing.

On Saturday night, a Maltese hotel and casino owner, Yorgen Fenech, was arraigned in Valletta’s courthouse on charges of complicity in the murder. The businessman, who was arrested on Nov. 20 as he sailed from Malta on his yacht, was also charged with organizing and financing the powerful bomb blast.

Fenech entered pleas of innocence.

He had requested immunity from prosecution promising to reveal information about government officials. His bid for immunity was rejected first by Muscat on his own and later by Muscat’s Cabinet.

Participants in Sunday’s protest carried photos of the slain journalist as well as placards with the last words she wrote on her blog shortly before getting into her car, which was blown up near her home. "The situation is desperate,’’ she had written referring to what she unearthed with her digging into suspected widespread corruption in Malta’s political and business circles. On the placards, protesters added the word “still” before ‘’desperate.”

Families with young children, teenagers and the elderly carried Maltese flags and signs demanding both Muscat's resignation and justice.

Affixed to the gate outside the courthouse were copies of a photo that was published on Saturday by Malta Today showing Schembri with the alleged middleman in the case, taxi driver Melvin Theuma. It was unclear where and when the photo was taken.

Theuma recently was granted immunity from the prosecution in exchange for giving details on who was behind the bombing. Shortly after the blast, three men were arrested for allegedly carrying out the actual bombing. No trial date has been set for those three.

Among the demonstrators were Caruana Galizia’s family, including her parents, who walked at the head of the protest, behind a banner with the word "justice.”

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