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Brothers get 40 years each for Malta reporter’s car-bomb murder after stunning plea reversal

George and Alfred Degiorgio initially entered not-guilty pleas at the courthouse in Valletta.
A memorial for a slain journalist
Mandy Mallia lights candles at a memorial her sister, a slain journalist, in Valletta, Malta on Friday.Jonathan Borg / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two brothers were sentenced to 40 years in prison each by a judge in Malta after they pleaded guilty to the car-bomb murder of an anti-corruption journalist Friday.

It was a stunning reversal, because hours earlier at the start of the trial in a Valletta courthouse Friday, George Degiorgio, 59, and Alfred Degiorgio, 57, had entered not-guilty pleas at the courthouse in Valletta where they were charged with having set the bomb that blew up Daphne Caruana Galizia’s car as she drove near her home on Oct. 16, 2017.

The wreckage of the car of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia
The wreckage of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia's car in Mosta, Malta in 2017.Rene Rossignaud / AP file

Caruana Galizia investigated suspected corruption among political and business circles in the tiny European Union nation, which is a financial haven in the Mediterranean.

Prosecutors alleged that the brothers that they were hired by a top Maltese businessman with government ties. That businessman has been charged and will be tried separately.

In the run-up to the trial, the Degiorgio brothers had denied the charges. A third suspect, Vincent Muscat, avoided a trial after earlier changing his plea to guilty. Muscat is serving a 15-year sentence.

It wasn’t immediately clear why the defendants abruptly reversed their pleas.

During the prosecution’s opening arguments, the state argued they had evidence involving cell phones that would link the defendants to the bombing.

The brothers had unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a pardon in exchange for naming bigger alleged conspirators, including a former minister whose identity hasn’t been revealed.

The bomb had been placed under the driver’s seat and the explosion was powerful enough to send the car’s wreckage flying over a wall and into a field.

A top Maltese investigative journalist, Caruana Galizia, 53, had written extensively on her website “Running Commentary” about suspected corruption in political and business circles in the Mediterranean island nation, an attractive financial haven.

People hold pictures of slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia
People hold pictures of slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia during a protest outside the office of the Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in Valletta, Malta in 2019. Rene Rossignaud / AP

Among her targets were people in then-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s inner circle whom she accused of having offshore companies in tax havens disclosed in the Panama Papers leak. But she also targeted the opposition. When she was killed she was facing more than 40 libel suits.

The arrest of a top businessman with connections to senior government officials two years after the murder sparked a series of mass protests in the country, forcing Muscat to resign.

Yorgen Fenech was indicted in 2019 for alleged complicity in the slaying, by either ordering or instigating the commission of the crime, inciting another to commit the crime or by promising to give a reward after the fact. He was also indicted for conspiracy to commit murder. Fenech has entered not-guilty pleas to all charges.

No date has been set for his trial.

A self-confessed middleman, taxi driver Melvin Theuma, was granted a presidential pardon in 2019 in exchange for testimony against Fenech and the other alleged plotters. Two men, Jamie Vella and Robert Agius, have been charged with supplying the bomb, but their trial has not yet begun.

In the morning session before a lunch break, a deputy prosecutor, Philip Galea Farrugia, told the court that Theuma was asked by an unnamed person to find someone to kill Caruana Galizia. Theuma allegedly approached one of the Degiorgio brothers and a payment of 150,000 euros ($146,500) was negotiated, said Galea Farrugia.

Galea Farrugia also said that a rifle was initially selected as the murder weapon, but that was later switched to a bomb. Prosecutors also said that a cell phone — one of three that George Degiorgio had with him on a cabin cruiser in Malta’s Grand Harbor — had triggered the explosion.

A 2021 public inquiry report found that the Maltese state “has to bear responsibility” for Caruana Galizia’s murder because of the culture of impunity that emanated from the highest levels of government.