VALLETTA – Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat will step down on Jan. 18, party sources said on Saturday, following mounting criticism of his response to the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
The announcement came as the main suspect in the 2017 car bomb killing, tycoon Yorgen Fenech, 38, was charged with complicity in the murder.
The court also ordered Fenech’s assets to be frozen and he was returned to custody.
Party insiders said Muscat would step down once those behind the killing had been charged and his Labour Party had chosen a new leader.
“He always said that he will be leaving soon and he feels that now is the time to go,” said one party source.
First, however, he wanted to see that the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder was solved under his watch, as he had promised, sources added.
“After the mastermind or masterminds are arraigned in court, he plans to announce that he will be stepping down and that there will be a leadership election on January 18,” a party source told AFP.
The sources did not say when 45-year-old Muscat would announce his decision — or whether it would be via a televised announcement — but they stressed that he would not stay beyond January 18.
The news came amid mounting pressure from Caruana Galizia’s family and protesters on the streets, who have cried foul over his handling of the affair.
The escalating murder investigation has rocked the tiny Mediterranean island and reached the highest rungs of politics, with two ministers and Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri stepping down from their posts earlier in the week.
Fenech has identified Schembri as the mastermind behind Caruana Galizia’s killing, according to sources.
Schembri was arrested on Tuesday, but his release on Thursday sparked accusations of a cover-up.
Muscat, who has vowed to resign if links were found between himself and the murder, said Friday he would remain in power, telling reporters he wanted “this case to be closed under my watch.”
But Caruana Galizia’s family, who have accused the prime minister of protecting his long-time chief of staff have called for him to go.
“We share Malta’s shock and anger at the release of Keith Schembri,” the family said in a statement.
“At least two witnesses and multiple pieces of physical evidence implicate Schembri in the assassination of our wife and mother.”
They accused Muscat of playing “judge, jury and executioner in an assassination investigation that so far implicates three of his closest colleagues.”
Muscat said Friday he had recused himself from the decision on whether to grant immunity to Fenech.
The prime minister later said he had reported Fenech to the police for attempted blackmail, saying the mogul had threatened to implicate him in the affair if he was not given a pardon.
Fenech, a tycoon whose business interests span the energy and tourism sectors, was arrested on his yacht in November after an alleged middleman in the murder, taxi driver Melvin Theuma, was offered a pardon to identify those involved.
That arrest was followed swiftly by the resignation of Schembri and tourism minister Konrad Mizzi, while economy minister Chris Cardona said he was “suspending himself.”
Caruana Galizia, a popular journalist and blogger described as a “one-woman WikiLeaks,” exposed cronyism and sleaze within the country’s political and business elite.
Before she was killed, she had alleged that Schembri and Mizzi had been involved in corruption. She had named Cardona in a separate case.
Leaked emails revealed in court appeared to show both Schembri and Mizzi stood to receive payments from a Dubai company called 17 Black, owned by Fenech.
A Maltese court is expected to rule Monday on a request by Fenech for the chief investigator in the case, Keith Arnaud, to be removed, amid allegations he also had close ties to Schembri and the prime minister.
After his release on bail Fenech told journalists he feared for his life.