Bonnici claims he cleared Daphne memorial ‘to avoid conflict’

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

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with activists restoring the memorial every day as soon as it was removed, until the decision to clear the memorial was rescinded last January by newly-appointed Prime Minister Robert Abela.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.

Other highlights from the sitting;

  • Bonnici insists that Muscat treated the controversial IIP like any other project
  • The minister is unable to confirm whether Keith Schembri introduced him to Henley and Partners’ chairman Chris Kälin before or after a public call for the concessionaire was made.
  • He defends his description of Daphne as a hate blogger, insisting he crossed no line in expressing his opposition to her style of writing
  • Konrad Mizzi was ‘naïve’ to set up offshore financial structures, with Bonnici claimed him that he asked him what he had done
  • Bonnici claims he never even knew Yorgen Fenech existed before 2017, and that he was not aware of any friendship between him and Schembri
  • According to Bonnici, Schembri showed a desire to solve the assassination
12:05 Our live blog thus ends here. Thank you for following us!
John Paul Cordina
12:04 The sitting is now suspended for five minutes, and testimony will then continue behind closed doors.
John Paul Cordina
12:03 Azzopardi thus met Bonnici to discuss a possible pardon for his client.

But Bonnici said that he was opposed to granting two pardons to bring a single person to justice.
John Paul Cordina
12:02 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:59 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:58 He also insists that overseas, such memorials are only maintained for a set period of time, bringing up France as an example.
John Paul Cordina
11:58 Bonnici states that the matter was not discussed in Cabinet, though he did bring it up in discussions with fellow ministers.
John Paul Cordina
11:56 With this in mind, he adds, he felt that the best option was to clear the monument.

The court naturally disagreed.
John Paul Cordina
11:55 The minister seeks to justify himself by mentioning that the memorial led to controversy.

He insists that it was left untouched for over a year, but that arguments subsequently erupted, some of them violent.
John Paul Cordina
11:54 Bonnici states that the decision was done collegially, but Comodini Cachia insists that he specifies who exactly approved the controversial clearances.
John Paul Cordina
11:51 Comodini Cachia now brings up the ruling which found Bonnici guilty of breaching activists' right when he ordered the daily clearing of the memorial.

As she reads excerpts of that sentence, Bonnici starts leaving through the folder he brought along.
John Paul Cordina
11:50 But in apparent anticipation of an obvious follow-up, Bonnici quickly clarifies that he appointed Tonna as consultant directly: no public call was made.
John Paul Cordina
11:50 Bonnici pleads ignorance when Comodini Cachia points out that Tonna benefited from €2.4 million in direct orders between 2013 and 2017.

He notes that he never handed direct orders to Tonna himself, and that in any case, direct orders were not inherently wrong.
John Paul Cordina
11:46 Comodini Cachia questions the apparent conflict of interest, since Tonna consulted Schembri and Mizzi and since he was being investigated on the matter.

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.
John Paul Cordina
11:45 The minister adds that he chose to terminate Tonna's consultancy contract after the 2017 election.
John Paul Cordina
11:44 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.

Bonnici replies that at this point, he decided to retain Tonna on a part-time basis instead.
John Paul Cordina
11:43 The minister explains that Tonna was initially recruited as a full-time consultant, but that he never had a desk within the ministry.
John Paul Cordina
11:42 He confirms that when he was made minister in 2014, he decided to appoint Tonna as his consultant.

He states that he needed assistance when it came to obtaining EU funds, specifically mentioning MUŻA and the Malta International Contemporary Art Space.
John Paul Cordina
11:41 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:39 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.

Mizzi was made Tourism Minister after the 2017 election, and remained responsible for major government projects throughout.
John Paul Cordina
11:38 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:37 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:36 The minister denies any knowledge of the close friendship between Keith Schembri and Yorgen Fenech.
John Paul Cordina
11:35 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.

He states that he and Muscat went out to dinner once.
John Paul Cordina
11:35 "From my perspective, it appeared that Schembri was helping to solve the case," he remarks.
John Paul Cordina
11:33 Bonnici states that he does not believe that Schembri was involved in the murder.
John Paul Cordina
11:33 But the inquiry board states that according to the evidence it had in hand, the identity of the source of the leak was known.
John Paul Cordina
11:32 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 he was shocked by the revelation, and that he had no idea who could have leaked the information.
John Paul Cordina
11:31 He states that it appeared that the investigation had been proceeding smoothly, and that he was impressed by Arnaud.
John Paul Cordina
11:29 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:28 That pardon was not granted; instead, one was granted to self-confessed middleman Melvin Theuma.

The decision was made by Muscat, with Bonnici stating that the former PM insisted on assuming responsibility for this.
John Paul Cordina
11:27 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:27 "Keith Schembri too showed an interest in solving the case," Bonnici insists.
John Paul Cordina
11:27 The minister is asked whether Schembri was present for Cabinet meetings on the issue.

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.
John Paul Cordina
11:26 Bonnici also recalls that a €1 million reward for information was launched.
John Paul Cordina
11:25 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:25 Bonnici states that it was the worst thing that had happened to Cabinet, and that their lives would change.
John Paul Cordina
11:23 As for the reaction to the assassination, Bonnici said that everyone was shaken.
John Paul Cordina
11:21 Once more, he emphasises that Muscat ended up resigning.
John Paul Cordina
11:20 Bonnici states that everyone was displeased, and that he had announced that an investigation into the matter would be taking place.
John Paul Cordina
11:19 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:16 He also insists that he never saw Yorgen Fenech in CAstille.

"I didn't even know he existed," he maintains.
John Paul Cordina
11:15 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:13 What about Keith Schembri, the board asks.

As a consequence, Bonnici replies, Muscat himself had to resign.
John Paul Cordina
11:12 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:09 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:08 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.

"The faster they are concluded, the more people would know whether illegal activity had taken place," Bonnici maintains.
John Paul Cordina
11:07 He insists that when allegations started being made, he was comforted by the fact that magisterial inquiries had been launched.
John Paul Cordina
11:06 He notes that many Maltese businessmen were revealed to have set up offshore structures.
John Paul Cordina
11:05 But as far as Keith Schembri was concerned, Bonnici notes that Muscat's chief of staff was also a businessmen.

The argument, therefore, was whether people active in business should hold political positions.
John Paul Cordina
11:04 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.

He states that he asked Konrad Mizzi what prompted him to make such a move.
John Paul Cordina
11:03 The topic of discussion now turns to the Panama Papers, with Bonnici asked to state what his reaction as Justice Minister had been.
John Paul Cordina
11:02 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:01 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:00 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.
John Paul Cordina
11:00 In reply to a question by the lawyer, the minister states that he was on very cordial terms with former Attorney General Peter Grech.
John Paul Cordina
10:55 Bonnici insists that legal amendments he had presented would have thwarted any minister's plans to file legal proceedings, but Comodini Cachia objects.
John Paul Cordina
10:52 But Bonnici insists that he saw what she had written with his own eyes, and so did others.
John Paul Cordina
10:50 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.
John Paul Cordina
10:48 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.
John Paul Cordina
10:46 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).
John Paul Cordina
10:45 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.
John Paul Cordina
10:45 The minister also notes that there were private citizens who were planning to launch a campaign against Daphne's blog.
John Paul Cordina
10:41 He stands by his social media posts, insisted that he did not cross any red lines in condemning hate blogging.

He goes on to argue that it was his right to comment on writing styles.
John Paul Cordina
10:40 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."
John Paul Cordina
10:39 "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.
John Paul Cordina
10:38 He insists that in a blog post that was subsequently deleted, Daphne said that someone should face the same fate as Mussolini.
John Paul Cordina
10:37 Bonnici concedes that Daphne had very good stories, but adds that some weren't in his style because he felt they were too personal.
John Paul Cordina
10:37 He decries Daphne's celebration of Dom Mintoff's death as insensitive, stating that one should not speak in such a manner.
John Paul Cordina
10:36 The minister adds that when he sought, unsuccessfully, to become the Labour Party's deputy leader, he had criticised all blogs of the sort.
John Paul Cordina
10:36 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.
John Paul Cordina
10:35 But he then sought to justify his stance by citing public sentiment on Daphne at the time.

"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."
John Paul Cordina
10:34 Bonnici reiterates that he had consciously decided not to file libel suits and make use of the right of reply instead.
John Paul Cordina
10:33 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.
John Paul Cordina
10:31 Bonnici reiterates that his task was to implement the proper legislative framework.

He adds that Cardona became very knowledgeable on the subject, and that he relied on him more than he relied on Kälin.
John Paul Cordina
10:30 But the minister replies that one can clearly see that he did not answer the email.

He adds that it would be best to ask Muscat on his own reply.
John Paul Cordina
10:26 Comodini Cachia now hands Bonnici a printout of an email sent by Kälin on the legal proceedings that were to be instituted against Daphne.
John Paul Cordina
10:24 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 insists that he did all that was possible to fight such a threat.
John Paul Cordina
10:20 But Bonnici insists that this was his impression, though he adds that Muscat was quite hands-on when it came to individual projects.

"He was a PM who wanted to be involved, who wanted to know the deadlines of every project," he explains.
John Paul Cordina
10:20 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.
John Paul Cordina
10:18 While Comodini Cachia is asking questions, her colleague – fellow PN MP Jason Azzopardi – is passing on remarks to her. Bonnici is not amused.
John Paul Cordina
10:17 The minister describes the events as conferences, and states that he had attended one of them, in London.

On that occasion, only he and Cardona were flying Malta's flag.
John Paul Cordina
10:16 Bonnici insists that it did not appear that Muscat pushed hard for the IIP to be implemented.

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.
John Paul Cordina
10:15 The minister reiterates that he had no idea why the email by Daphne was sent to Muscat, or why he was copied in.
John Paul Cordina
10:15 He laments that he received constant criticism over an email address he never had.
John Paul Cordina
10:14 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.
John Paul Cordina
10:12 She also refers to Muscat's use of the email address joseph@josephmuscat.com for official work, and asks whether Bonnici was opposed to this, once he insisted that he did not use a similar address.
John Paul Cordina
10:11 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."
John Paul Cordina
10:11 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.
John Paul Cordina
10:10 "There were a lot of good people" at OPM, Bonnici states.
Comodini Cachia asks whether Schembri was one of them, but the minister answers in the negative.
John Paul Cordina
10:10 Comodini Cachia thus asks whether Schembri directly provided said assistance.
John Paul Cordina
10:08 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.
John Paul Cordina
10:07 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.

Bonnici states that he understands that the meeting took place afterwards.
John Paul Cordina
10:06 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.
John Paul Cordina
10:04 Bonnici states that he felt no need to reply, as he had made his position clear during the meeting.
John Paul Cordina
10:04 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.
John Paul Cordina
10:02 He insists that he never filed legal proceedings against a journalist, before reiterating that he never replied to Henley's email.

"I never provided them with support for this course of action, whether directly or indirectly," he tells the board.
John Paul Cordina
09:59 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.
John Paul Cordina
09:58 He strongly denies that he conspired with anyone to bring about international legal proceedings against a journalist.

But his remarks lead to objections from the Caruana Galizia family.
John Paul Cordina
09:57 He adds that while he may have received the email in question, he did not reply to it.
John Paul Cordina
09:57 Bonnici states that he made use of two email addresses: his gov.mt one and another related to his constituency.
John Paul Cordina
09:56 The minister denies making use of the email address owen.bonnici@josephmuscat.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.
John Paul Cordina
09:55 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.
John Paul Cordina
09:54 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.
John Paul Cordina
09:54 The meeting took place, and Cardona was also present.
John Paul Cordina
09:53 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.
John Paul Cordina
09:52 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.

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/.
John Paul Cordina
09:51 Asked whether Kälin was involved in drafting the IIP, Bonnici says he has no information on the matter.
John Paul Cordina
09:50 He does not appear to have taken a liking to the Henley & Partners chairman, however, stating that his relationship to him was somewhat particular.

Kälin was reserved and "very cold," someone not easy to talk to or befriend.
John Paul Cordina
09:50 Bonnici states that he met Kälin some 3/4 times in total.
John Paul Cordina
09:49 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.
John Paul Cordina
09:49 The minister is asked whether he was introduced to Kälin before or after his company was chosen to act as IIP's concessionaire.

He claims not to remember, but recalls that he had testified on the matter during the PAC hearing.
John Paul Cordina
09:47 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.
John Paul Cordina
09:46 The minister adds that the legislation was not a complex one.
John Paul Cordina
09:45 Bonnici notes that a public call for a concessionaire had been made, and that his role was to provide a legal framework for this.

The call was drafted by the Office of the Attorney General.
John Paul Cordina
09:43 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.

He was introduced by Keith Schembri.
John Paul Cordina
09:41 The first question made to Bonnici concerns the controversial Individual Investor Programme, with the minister asked to elaborate on his involvement in the scheme.
John Paul Cordina
09:41 Minister Bonnici takes the witness stand, with a sizeable folder in hand.
John Paul Cordina
09:40 A printout of Bedingfield's Facebook post, as well as the replies it received, is presented as evidence.
John Paul Cordina
09:38 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.

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.
John Paul Cordina
09:33 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.

The practice was stopped, but the ruling did not exclude the minister from forming part of the Abela cabinet, albeit in a different portfolio.
John Paul Cordina
09:32 We're presently waiting for the inquiry board to arri.

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.
John Paul Cordina
09:27 Daphne's husband, the lawyer Peter Caruana Galizia, now enters the hall.
John Paul Cordina
09:24 A number of Daphne's relatives are also present, as re their lawyers.
John Paul Cordina
09:23 Good morning: we're live from Hall 22 at the Law Courts.

Today's sitting is scheduled to start at 9.30am. Minister Bonnici has already arrived, however.
John Paul Cordina

The last minister to testify in the inquiry was Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne, in a sitting which took place on Wednesday.

Highlights from the last sitting:

  • The concession granted to Vitals on three public hospitals was “theoretically” a good project
  • Fearne met Vitals’ owner once, when he was still Parliamentary Secretary for Health
  • The deputy PM said that he became aware of the so-called “kitchen cabinet” when his colleague Edward Scicluna mentioned it in the inquiry
  • The stated reason for entrusting disgraced former minister Konrad Mizzi with so many major projects was his “ability to lead projects and to ensure continuity”
  • Fearne expressed disagreement with the way the role of Chief of Staff evolved
  • Fearne suggested Keith Schembri sought to thwart his re-election, conceding that their relationship had soured
  • Fearne claimed never to meet or communicate with Yorgen Fenech
  • He also said that he never saw Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna or Karl Cini in Castille
  • Fearne suggested that the aim of the assassination was to send a warning to other journalist
  • Fearne claimed to know about the decision to hold an early election in 2017 when it was announced publicly
  • Muscat claimed the assassination was the worst thing to happen to his government