Police investigating the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia have questioned the prime minister’s closest aide over claims he was the mastermind behind the killing, according to sources close to the inquiry.
The allegations against Keith Schembri were made by a prominent businessman, Yorgen Fenech, who was arrested last week and is understood to be seeking legal immunity in return for his testimony.
Fenech has also alleged the men who planted the car bomb which killed the reporter were paid €130,000 (£111,000), according to sources familiar with the inquiry.
The businessman has been attempting to implicate Schembri, a close friend of the prime minister, Joseph Muscat, in his statements to police.
Schembri, who was arrested in connection with the murder on Tuesday morning and is now on police bail, has previously denied having any connection to the murder of Caruana Galizia, who was killed two years ago.
His lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.
Police have cautioned that they are still corroborating Fenech’s claims and that not all of them have been reliable, according to reports in the local media.
Muscat said he would only comment “once investigations are over, hopefully in a few hours”.
The latest developments came on another dramatic day in the unfolding inquiry into the death of Caruana Galizia, who was Malta’s best-known investigative journalist.
Her work had exposed corruption at the highest level in Maltese political and business circles, and she was widely seen as a thorn in the side of Muscat’s Labour government.
She was killed when her rental car exploded near her home in the village of Bidnija in October 2017. The killing drew international condemnation and raised questions about the rule of law inside the EU member state.
Fenech was arrested last week on board his yacht.
He is understood to have claimed to police Schembri approached him about Caruana Galizia in November 2016.
The approach supposedly came shortly after she had published a blogpost revealing Schembri was being treated for cancer.
Earlier this week, a doctor who knew both men was questioned by police on suspicion that he had agreed to pass notes between them. The doctor, Adrian Vella, was arrested on Wednesday. It is believed he may have passed two typed, unsigned notes to Fenech on behalf of Schembri.
Fenech is alleged to have claimed that he was handed one of the notes after his arrest and while he was under observation at the Mater Dei hospital in Tal-Qroqq.
Last Saturday, Fenech was given a temporary reprieve from questioning when he was admitted to hospital with chest pain.
On the hospital’s recommendation, he was not interrogated for the next 24 hours. It is during this period that Fenech is said to claim he received the note.
Vella could not be reached for comment.
Fenech has claimed the notes were instructions about what he should say if he was questioned, according to sources familiar with the inquiry. It is understood that police have obtained data from the encrypted messaging application Signal relating to Fenech’s testimony.
Three men were arrested in December 2017 for planting the car bomb that killed Caruana Galizia. They are awaiting trial and police have been working to identify the individuals who ordered and paid for her assassination. Following a series of arrests over the last two weeks, details have begun to emerge.
Fenech is understood to have told police he gave an intermediary €150,000 to pay for a contract killing. The intermediary supposedly kept €20,000 for himself and passed €130,000 to the bombers.
Fenech is apparently hoping to secure a presidential pardon in return for providing evidence to the inquiry.
He was arrested last week after trying to leave Malta on board his yacht. It later emerged that Fenech had resigned as a director of the companies that control his energy, property and gambling interests.
Fenech is the co-owner of a power station, along with the Germany company Siemens and Azerbaijan’s state owned oil and gas business, Socar. The power station produces electricity for the grid in Malta under a government contract won in a public tender.
Konrad Mizzi, the minister who oversaw the contract award, resigned last week. Along with Schembri, he was revealed by Caruana Galizia as having become the beneficiary of a Panama shell company soon after entering office. Mizzi denies all wrondoing.