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Malta's Muscat exits under journalist murder cloud

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Valletta (AFP)

Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, dogged by accusations of hampering justice for a murdered reporter, was to make his farewell speech Friday ahead of a party vote on his successor.

Muscat, 45, said in December he would quit following widespread anger over his perceived efforts to protect friends and allies from an investigation into the brutal 2017 slaying of investigative blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The prime minister, who once bathed in the glow of the country's booming economy and was re-elected by a landslide to serve a second term in 2017, was set to address the Labour Party at 8 pm (1900 GMT).

Muscat's fall from power followed daily protests led by supporters of the Caruana Galizia family, who accuse him among other things of shielding his chief of staff and childhood friend Keith Schembri, who has been implicated in the murder.

Dubbed the "one woman WikiLeaks", Caruana Galizia exposed corruption at the highest levels on the Mediterranean island.

She was killed in a car bomb explosion on October 16, 2017 in an attack that made headlines around the world.

Less than an hour before her death, Caruana Galizia wrote on her blog: "There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate."

- 'Save Malta's reputation' -

The journalist's family had called for Muscat to step down immediately, but support from his party and his own popularity -- linked to Malta's growth, which shot up 6.6 percent in 2018 -- bought him wiggle room until the election for a new party head.

His final weeks saw him travel to Rome to meet Pope Francis, to Bethlehem for Christmas Mass, to Dubai on a family holiday and to London, where Maltese media said he met with a high-flying lawyer, possibly over the Caruana Galizia case.

Two candidates are vying to take over from Muscat as Labour leader and prime minister: deputy prime minister and health minister Chris Fearne, a 56-year old surgeon, and 42-year-old lawyer Robert Abela.

Neither has criticised Muscat or referred to the Caruana Galizia murder in the run-up to the election. Both have insisted they represent continuity, highlighting their determination to keep the economy on its stellar trajectory.

Some 17,500 Labour voters are expected to go to the ballots on Saturday to elect the party's first mid-term prime minister in history.

"If the new prime minister really wants stability within the country, and if he wants to save Malta's reputation, he needs to work to change the sick mentality of 'everything goes'," activist Martina Farrugia said at a protest this week.

Whoever takes over must "give a clear message that criminals’ place is in jail", she said.

Three men are on trial for allegedly planting and detonating the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia, while a fourth -- prominent businessman Jorgen Fenech -- was charged as an accomplice after being arrested in November as he tried to leave the country on his yacht.

Fenech's arrest sparked the resignation of tourism minister Konrad Mizzi, who formerly served as energy minister, and Schembri.

- 'Complicit?' -

Caruana Galizia had reported on a mysterious Dubai-based company named 17 Black, which she alleged was connected to Maltese politicians.

Malta's anti-money laundering watchdog later identified Fenech as its owner and discovered emails showing Panama companies owned by Mizzi and Schembri stood to receive two million euros from 17 Black for unspecified services.

Fenech was co-owner of a group that won a large energy concession from the Maltese state.

The businessman has accused Schembri of being the "real mastermind" behind Daphne's murder.

The former chief of staff was briefly arrested but released without charge in November, fuelling allegations of police corruption or incompetence, and further meddling by the government in the murder investigation.

"At best, Muscat will be remembered for making grave error of judgement," Malta Today wrote in a recent editorial.

"At worst, he will continue facing questions on his relationship with Schembri, which may lead one to believe that he closed an eye, or maybe two eyes, or was even complicit".

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