Education Minister Owen Bonnici insisted that he directed public cleansing staff to clear the impromptu memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia at the foot of the Great Siege Monument in a bid to avoid the arguments that were erupting over it.
Bonnici was testifying in the public inquiry into assassination of Caruana Galizia, and was inevitably asked for the decision he was politically responsible for, which led a Constitutional Court to rule that he was breaching activists’ rights by ordering the daily clearance of the memorial.
The minister said that the memorial was left untouched for around a year, but that arguments erupted over its continued presence, and that a person even ended up in hospital as a result. Back in 2018, an elderly man ended up in hospital after falling whilst taking a swipe at one of the activists, though he was soon discharged.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the decision did nothing to put an end to the debate, with activists restoring the memorial every day as soon as it was removed, until the decision to clear the memorial was rescinded last January by newly-appointed Prime Minister Robert Abela.
Bonnici was asked to comment on various matters during the sitting, which ultimately continued behind closed doors.
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The sitting is now suspended for five minutes, and testimony will then continue behind closed doors.
But Bonnici said that he was opposed to granting two pardons to bring a single person to justice.
Azzopardi thus met Bonnici to discuss a possible pardon for his client.
He explains that Azzopardi had sought to meet the PM in August 2018 over the matter, and that Joseph Muscat had asked him to deal with the lawyer.
Bonnici states that he wished to comment on remarks made by lawyer Arthur Azzopardi – il-Koħħu's lawyer – who said that the minister declared that government would only provide one presidential pardon.
He also insists that overseas, such memorials are only maintained for a set period of time, bringing up France as an example.
Bonnici states that the matter was not discussed in Cabinet, though he did bring it up in discussions with fellow ministers.
The court naturally disagreed.
With this in mind, he adds, he felt that the best option was to clear the monument.
He insists that it was left untouched for over a year, but that arguments subsequently erupted, some of them violent.
The minister seeks to justify himself by mentioning that the memorial led to controversy.
Bonnici states that the decision was done collegially, but Comodini Cachia insists that he specifies who exactly approved the controversial clearances.
As she reads excerpts of that sentence, Bonnici starts leaving through the folder he brought along.
Comodini Cachia now brings up the ruling which found Bonnici guilty of breaching activists' right when he ordered the daily clearing of the memorial.
But in apparent anticipation of an obvious follow-up, Bonnici quickly clarifies that he appointed Tonna as consultant directly: no public call was made.
He notes that he never handed direct orders to Tonna himself, and that in any case, direct orders were not inherently wrong.
Bonnici pleads ignorance when Comodini Cachia points out that Tonna benefited from €2.4 million in direct orders between 2013 and 2017.
But Bonnici insists that he only came to know of this shortly before the election took place.
Tonna ultimately acted as Bonnici's consultant for three years, from August 2017 to August 2017.
Comodini Cachia questions the apparent conflict of interest, since Tonna consulted Schembri and Mizzi and since he was being investigated on the matter.
The minister adds that he chose to terminate Tonna's consultancy contract after the 2017 election.
Bonnici replies that at this point, he decided to retain Tonna on a part-time basis instead.
Comodini Cachia asks how Bonnici could retain Tonna's services after his firm's involvement in the setting up of Mizzi's Panama company was made public.
The minister explains that Tonna was initially recruited as a full-time consultant, but that he never had a desk within the ministry.
He states that he needed assistance when it came to obtaining EU funds, specifically mentioning MUŻA and the Malta International Contemporary Art Space.
He confirms that when he was made minister in 2014, he decided to appoint Tonna as his consultant.
Bonnici states that he came to know about Brian Tonna when he would visit shops in Marsascala – in his constituency. He notes that Tonna held an office in the locality, and many outlets made use of his services.
Mizzi was made Tourism Minister after the 2017 election, and remained responsible for major government projects throughout.
But the minister insists that decisions should only be made once all evidence is at hand, and that ultimately, as he noted before, Mizzi was asked to resign the party's deputy leadership and his ministerial portfolio was removed.
Comodini Cachia now refers to remarks Bonnici made to the Malta Independent on 11 April 2016, in reaction to former PM Alfred Sant's assertion that Konrad Mizzi should resign over the Panama Papers scandal.
He adds that he once met Fenech at an airport, as he was about to fly to Malta, after the 2017 election. It was on this occasion, he states, that he came to know of Fenech's existence.
The minister denies any knowledge of the close friendship between Keith Schembri and Yorgen Fenech.
He states that he and Muscat went out to dinner once.
Bonnici states that he had not been invited to Muscat's birthday party at the Girgenti Palace last year, in which Fenech gifted the PM with expensive wine bottles.
"From my perspective, it appeared that Schembri was helping to solve the case," he remarks.
Bonnici states that he does not believe that Schembri was involved in the murder.
But the inquiry board states that according to the evidence it had in hand, the identity of the source of the leak was known.
He states that he was shocked by the revelation, and that he had no idea who could have leaked the information.
Bonnici is now asked on the leak of information that a raid on the three men initially arrested over the murder was imminent.
He states that it appeared that the investigation had been proceeding smoothly, and that he was impressed by Arnaud.
Asked whether he knew what information Vince Muscat was ready to offer, the minister states that Inspector Keith Arnaud would keep them updated. He offers to elaborate on this behind closed doors.
The decision was made by Muscat, with Bonnici stating that the former PM insisted on assuming responsibility for this.
That pardon was not granted; instead, one was granted to self-confessed middleman Melvin Theuma.
Bonnici states that he was particularly involved in meetings on a possible presidential pardon to Vince Muscat il-Koħħu, one of the three men accused of carrying out the attack on the orders of others.
"Keith Schembri too showed an interest in solving the case," Bonnici insists.
He states that he does not believe he was during the meetings he held with Muscat. However, Schembri was present when he was informed that the FBI would be assisting in investigations.
The minister is asked whether Schembri was present for Cabinet meetings on the issue.
Bonnici also recalls that a €1 million reward for information was launched.
He recalls that then-Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera had been appointed to lead the inquiry as the duty magistrate, and that Muscat had asked Mifsud to address the matter, given Caruana Galizia's publicly-stated concerns about the magistrate who has since been made a judge.
Bonnici states that it was the worst thing that had happened to Cabinet, and that their lives would change.
As for the reaction to the assassination, Bonnici said that everyone was shaken.
Once more, he emphasises that Muscat ended up resigning.
Bonnici states that everyone was displeased, and that he had announced that an investigation into the matter would be taking place.
The topic now turns to secret Emirati company 17 Black – linked to Schembri and Mizzi's offshore accounts – with the inquiry board asking Bonnici to state how Cabinet had reacted when it was revealed that Fenech owned it.
"I didn't even know he existed," he maintains.
He also insists that he never saw Yorgen Fenech in CAstille.
He adds that it appeared to him that the PM always acted decisively in a bid to bring the culprits in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia to justice.
As a consequence, Bonnici replies, Muscat himself had to resign.
What about Keith Schembri, the board asks.
Bonnici apears to defend Muscat's conduct, noting that he had spoken to each member of Cabinet individually on the matter. Eventually, he recalls, Mizzi had to resign the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, and ended up a minister without a portfolio.
He insists that he never saw Nexia BT hold a desk at the Auberge de Castille, adding that in 7 years, he only saw Brian Tonna once at the Office of the Prime Minister.
"The faster they are concluded, the more people would know whether illegal activity had taken place," Bonnici maintains.
He reveals that he brought along a list of the inquiries that had been opened, and argues that it's best that such inquiries are concluded as quickly as possible.
He insists that when allegations started being made, he was comforted by the fact that magisterial inquiries had been launched.
He notes that many Maltese businessmen were revealed to have set up offshore structures.
The argument, therefore, was whether people active in business should hold political positions.
But as far as Keith Schembri was concerned, Bonnici notes that Muscat's chief of staff was also a businessmen.
He states that he asked Konrad Mizzi what prompted him to make such a move.
The minister states that opening trusts in a third country sent the wrong message, and adds that he felt that a minister must have been very politically naive to open such a trust in Panama.
The topic of discussion now turns to the Panama Papers, with Bonnici asked to state what his reaction as Justice Minister had been.
Bonnici said that while Grech provided advice, he would also delegate tasks to lawyers working with his office. Additionally, he adds, a lawyer working with the ministry was providing assistance.
Said Pullicno asks Bonnici to elaborate on the damning report by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission on the rule of law in Malta, questioning whether Grech assisted the government on the matter.
Asked whether he received advice from Grech in writing, Bonnici states that the most important advice was received in writing and passed on to the prime minister.
In reply to a question by the lawyer, the minister states that he was on very cordial terms with former Attorney General Peter Grech.
Bonnici insists that legal amendments he had presented would have thwarted any minister's plans to file legal proceedings, but Comodini Cachia objects.
But Bonnici insists that he saw what she had written with his own eyes, and so did others.
She also insists that Bonnici was lying when he claims that Caruana Galizia wrote that she wished to see him end up like Mussolini, citing a blog post dated 23 March 2017.
She states that she is bringing the article up to remind that the minister did not limit himself to describing Daphne as a hate blogger in his tweets.
Comodini Cachia now refers to an article published by Illum on 12 February 2017, bearing the title "Il-Ministru Owen Bonnici: 'Daphne hija hate blogger'" (Minister Owen Bonnici: Daphne is a hate blogger).
He concedes that he did not like the style of Glenn Bedingfield's blog, but insists that there was no comparison between his and Daphne's work.
The minister also notes that there were private citizens who were planning to launch a campaign against Daphne's blog.
He goes on to argue that it was his right to comment on writing styles.
He stands by his social media posts, insisted that he did not cross any red lines in condemning hate blogging.
Bonnici adds that he did not enter politics to exchange insults but to do good, and that he had the right to condemn "hate blogging."
"I don't think this style of writing is of benefit to the public," he states, before reiterating that he opposed all forms of hatred.
He insists that in a blog post that was subsequently deleted, Daphne said that someone should face the same fate as Mussolini.
Bonnici concedes that Daphne had very good stories, but adds that some weren't in his style because he felt they were too personal.
He decries Daphne's celebration of Dom Mintoff's death as insensitive, stating that one should not speak in such a manner.
The minister adds that when he sought, unsuccessfully, to become the Labour Party's deputy leader, he had criticised all blogs of the sort.
He seeks to claim the Archbishop as an ally on this, remarking that he had once said that blogs should not be used to spread hatred.
"There was a sentiment expressed by various people, that a number of stories on the blog treated purely personal issues. Many people were remarking that this was not right."
But he then sought to justify his stance by citing public sentiment on Daphne at the time.
Bonnici reiterates that he had consciously decided not to file libel suits and make use of the right of reply instead.
Comodini Cachia now asks the minister to justify a number of posts he made on social media in which he described Daphne as a "hate blogger," citing a tweet dated 8 February 2017 as an example.
He adds that Cardona became very knowledgeable on the subject, and that he relied on him more than he relied on Kälin.
Bonnici reiterates that his task was to implement the proper legislative framework.
He adds that it would be best to ask Muscat on his own reply.
But the minister replies that one can clearly see that he did not answer the email.
Comodini Cachia now hands Bonnici a printout of an email sent by Kälin on the legal proceedings that were to be instituted against Daphne.
He insists that he did all that was possible to fight such a threat.
The minister is asked on the controversial SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation), which seek to cow journalists into submission by threatening expensive litigation.
"He was a PM who wanted to be involved, who wanted to know the deadlines of every project," he explains.
But Bonnici insists that this was his impression, though he adds that Muscat was quite hands-on when it came to individual projects.
Comodini Cachia notes that on the week of Daphne's murder, Muscat was peddling the scheme in Dubai. In light of this, she questions whether the IIP was a project like any other for the former PM.
While Comodini Cachia is asking questions, her colleague – fellow PN MP Jason Azzopardi – is passing on remarks to her. Bonnici is not amused.
On that occasion, only he and Cardona were flying Malta's flag.
The minister describes the events as conferences, and states that he had attended one of them, in London.
But this leads Comodini Cachia to question why Muscat was ever-present in the road shows organised by Henley and Partners to peddle the scheme, instead of Bonnici as the minister directly responsible.
Bonnici insists that it did not appear that Muscat pushed hard for the IIP to be implemented.
The minister reiterates that he had no idea why the email by Daphne was sent to Muscat, or why he was copied in.
He laments that he received constant criticism over an email address he never had.
But Bonnici evades the question, stating that he denied having an email address on the josephmuscat.com domain to show that not everything written about him was true.
She also refers to Muscat's use of the email address firstname.lastname@example.org for official work, and asks whether Bonnici was opposed to this, once he insisted that he did not use a similar address.
The MP insists that the minister should properly specify when he met Kälin, and who had assisted him on the IIP, "when he remembers or looks it up."
Comodini Cachia asks whether Schembri provided assistance on the IIP. Bonnici states that while someone from OPM provided assistance, he could not remember their name.
Comodini Cachia asks whether Schembri was one of them, but the minister answers in the negative.
"There were a lot of good people" at OPM, Bonnici states.
Comodini Cachia thus asks whether Schembri directly provided said assistance.
Addressing queries by the lawyer, Bonnici states that as minister, he oversaw various large-scale projects, and that as such, he required the assistance of the Office of the Prime Minister.
Bonnici states that he understands that the meeting took place afterwards.
Lawyer and MP Therese Comodini Cachia, one of the Caruana Galizias' lawyers, insists that Bonnici should answer whether he first met Kälin before or after the public call for an IIP concessionaire was made.
The minister now explains that he sued one journalist for libel – one working for the Nationalist Party's media – but adds that the issue was resolved in a single sitting.
Bonnici states that he felt no need to reply, as he had made his position clear during the meeting.
But Judge Abigail Lofaro notes that Bonnici did not signal his disagreement with Henley's decision, stating that in his position, she would have expressed her disapproval.
"I never provided them with support for this course of action, whether directly or indirectly," he tells the board.
He insists that he never filed legal proceedings against a journalist, before reiterating that he never replied to Henley's email.
The minister adds that had he wanted to, he could make use of the Office of the Attorney General to initiate legal proceedings against Daphne. He did not need an international company to do so.
But his remarks lead to objections from the Caruana Galizia family.
He strongly denies that he conspired with anyone to bring about international legal proceedings against a journalist.
He adds that while he may have received the email in question, he did not reply to it.
Bonnici states that he made use of two email addresses: his gov.mt one and another related to his constituency.
The minister denies making use of the email address email@example.com. Muscat himself famously – and controversially – used the email instead of his gov.mt one, thus ensuring that his correspondence would not be preserved on government servers.
Bonnici states that he reminded Kälin that in Malta, the first step is generally to send a legal letter to the journalist concerned in which a clarification is included.
Kälin had lamented that a Maltese journalist was attacking his company's credibility, and informed him that Henley would be instituting legal proceedings against her.
The meeting took place, and Cardona was also present.
Bonnici states that at the time, he had become politically responsible for the IIP, and that a few days prior to the email exchange in question, Kälin requested a courtesy visit in order to update him on the scheme.
The correspondence may be read on Daphne's blog on daphnecaruanagalizia.com/2017/05/prime-minister-chief-staff-use-josephmuscat-com-addresses-deal-secretly-henley-partners-chairman-addresses-keith-joseph-order/.
The board reminds Bonnici that Caruana Galizia had published email correspondence involving him, Kälin, Joseph Muscat and Jonathan Cardona, who was responsible for the IIP.
Asked whether Kälin was involved in drafting the IIP, Bonnici says he has no information on the matter.
Kälin was reserved and "very cold," someone not easy to talk to or befriend.
He does not appear to have taken a liking to the Henley & Partners chairman, however, stating that his relationship to him was somewhat particular.
Bonnici states that he met Kälin some 3/4 times in total.
He adds that at the time, the minister responsible was Manuel Mallia, who was then the minister responsible for both justice and home affairs. As his parliamentary secretary, however, Bonnici worked closely with Mallia on the scheme.
He claims not to remember, but recalls that he had testified on the matter during the PAC hearing.
The minister is asked whether he was introduced to Kälin before or after his company was chosen to act as IIP's concessionaire.
Bonnici states that as far as he knew, Henley & Partners was not involved in the drafting of legislation. He adds that he had testified on the matter in front of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee, and offers to submit a copy of the testimony he had made.
The minister adds that the legislation was not a complex one.
The call was drafted by the Office of the Attorney General.
Bonnici notes that a public call for a concessionaire had been made, and that his role was to provide a legal framework for this.
He was introduced by Keith Schembri.
Bonnici observes that he had been Parliamentary Secretary for Justice in 2013, when he was introduced to Christian Kälin, the chairman of IIP concessionaire Henley & Partners.
The first question made to Bonnici concerns the controversial Individual Investor Programme, with the minister asked to elaborate on his involvement in the scheme.
Minister Bonnici takes the witness stand, with a sizeable folder in hand.
A printout of Bedingfield's Facebook post, as well as the replies it received, is presented as evidence.
He also questioned the wages drawn by the two retired judges
– Lofaro earns no additional payment as a sitting judge – to serve in the inquiry in an apparent attempt to defend Abela's controversial decision to only grant a one-time extension to the inquiry's deadline.
The inquiry board has come in, and it has been alerted to a post written by government whip Glenn Bedingfield, a witness in the inquiry who has insisted that the inquiry has become politicised.
The practice was stopped, but the ruling did not exclude the minister from forming part of the Abela cabinet, albeit in a different portfolio.
As we explain above, Bonnici had earned criticism for the daily clearing of the Daphne memorial at the foot of the Great Siege monument, a practice which, a court found, breached activists' human rights.
Just to remind you, the board is chaired by retired judge Michael Mallia. The other two members are former Chief Justice Joseph Said-Pullicino and Judge Abigail Lofaro.
We're presently waiting for the inquiry board to arri.
Daphne's husband, the lawyer Peter Caruana Galizia, now enters the hall.
A number of Daphne's relatives are also present, as re their lawyers.
Today's sitting is scheduled to start at 9.30am. Minister Bonnici has already arrived, however.
Good morning: we're live from Hall 22 at the Law Courts.
The last minister to testify in the inquiry was Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne, in a sitting which took place on Wednesday.