Neville Gafa says he handed back diplomatic passport to new PM; Daphne’s writing ‘hurt me’

Former OPM employee Neville Gafa said today that he had given back the diplomatic passport that had been given to him to new Robert Abela when the latter had been elected Prime Minister.

Testifying in the public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Gafa said that in Joseph Muscat’s time as PM it was felt that he (Gafa) should be given a diplomatic passport given the situation in Libya and his contacts there.

Gafa said that Caruana Galizia’s writings used to hurt him and he had reacted by doing the same things she did to other people, like posting photos of her. “She used to do it to other people, to friends of mine,” he told the board of inquiry.

He said that he had never taken any pictures of the slain journalist but had received many from other people..

Gafa said he never spoken to Keith Schembri, former OPM chief of staff, about the Panama Papers, but notes that Schembri had denied things both publicly and personally many times. He said that he is still in contact with Schembri every day.

Gafa was set to testify last Monday but a lengthy earlier testimony led the board to postpone Gafa’s intervention.

OPM employee Nigel Vella testified first.

Judge Michael Mallia is leading the inquiry, with the other two members of the board being chief Justice Joseph Said Pullicino and Madam Justice Abigail Lofaro.

The inquiry was set up to determine whether any wrongful action or omission by, or within, any State entity facilitated the assassination or failed to prevent it and to establishing whether the State had and has in place effective criminal law provisions and other practical means to avoid the development of a de facto state of impunity through the frequent occurrence of unresolved criminal acts.

Jason Azzopardi and Therese Comodini Cachia are representing the Caruana Galizia family.

State Advocate Victoria Buttigieg was also present.

Follow the minute-by-minute session below. Please refresh for latest updates

4.45pm: The public inquiry will continue on Friday 21 February at 9am with the testimony of Glenn Bedingfield. Other sittings will follow on Wednesday 26 February at 2pm when Petra Caruana Dingli and Gloria Beacon are expected to testify. Andre Camilleri, formerly of the MFSA, has also been mentioned as potentially testifying on that same day. The inquiry then continues on Friday 28 February at 11am with Ray Barbara and Kenneth Camilleri expected to testify.

4.42pm: That brings Gafa’s testimony to a close.

4.36pm: Azzopardi’s questions now shift to Keith Schembri. He asks whether Schembri had spoken to him about any involvement by Chris Cardona in the murder – Cardona claims an attempt was made to pin the murder on him. Gafa replies in the negative. He says that he had spoken to Schembri about the allegations against him, and he had “immediately denied them” with him. Gafa at one point states that Schembri was “disappointed that Yorgen [Fenech, accused with complicity in the murder] is lying about him”.

4.34pm: Gafa is asked whether Kenneth Camilleri had ever told him about the meeting he (Camilleri) had had with Melvin Theuma. Gafa says no, pointing out that he had never asked about these allegations – something which Azzopardi finds it hard to believe given that the duo were friends. 

4.27pm: Gafa confirms that he still meets Keith Schembri every day. He is asked about Schembri’s lost mobile, to which Gafa states that Schembri had simply told him that he had lost his phone. Gafa confirmed that Schembri was panicked when he lost his phone, but did not say much more to him. He also confirmed that Schembri was indeed in a late-night meeting at Joseph Muscat’s house.

4.24pm: Azzopardi is asked by the board about the relevance of his inquiries about Libya – although Gafa tells the board that he has no problem answering questions. Azzopardi explains that there is a pattern where employees in the OPM are acting beyond their roles, which could relate to the case.

4.22pm: Azzopardi asks why Kenneth Camilleri went to Libya with him. Gafa states he used to take Camilleri with him because this was a war-zone and he needed someone whom he could trust to protect him.

4.20pm: The questions turn to Gafa’s work in Libya. He states that he had met a militia leader of his own accord and not on anybody’s brief. “I shoulder responsibility myself,” he says. “With my intervention, thousands of migrants were stopped from coming to Malta. I coordinated between the AFM and Libyan coastguard. When we would know where the boats were, we informed the Libyan coastguard about their location so that they could go and save them. Otherwise thousands would have died,” he says.

4.17pm: Gafa states that it had been Chris Fearne who had terminated his contract, noting that he had not been given a reason for it. Azzopardi asks whether this was due to his unannounced trips to Libya, but Gafa rejects this, noting that Fearne was aware of the trips. Azzopardi asks whether he had been told to censor himself by the Prime Minister (Joseph Muscat) as it was not proper to attack a journalist. Gafa notes that this had happened and that he had removed posts in this sense.

4.13pm: Jason Azzopardi now asks about Gafa’s job history. He points out that he was employed at the Foundation for Medical Services under Konrad Mizzi. Soon after Chris Fearne’s appointment, he had started working in Gozo. Azzopardi asks who had approved the transfer. Gafa states that he had asked for the transfer himself. “Yes. I already used to go to Gozo twice a week. I was stationed at Guardamangia but it wasn’t suitable for my work and so I asked to relocate to Gozo.”

4.06pm: Gafa says he never spoken to Keith Schembri about the Panama Papers, but notes that Schembri had denied things both publicly and personally many times. He states that he had spoken to Schembri about his resignation. In answer to a separate question, he states that he had never heard the story about fuel smuggling in connection with Caruana Galizia’s murder. He states there was never any direction to try and deviate the media in such a manner

4.05pm: He is asked about the Truth Project, and he says he had no idea it existed. He says he had only learned about the term Truth Project some weeks ago.

4.03pm: He is now shown an image where it reads that “a certain Gafa compared Daphne’s funeral to a carnival”. Gafa denies writing this or making this comparison, noting that he was not in Malta at the time. He states that he does not agree with the description.

4.02pm: Gafa continues to insist that he never took pictures of Caruana Galizia. He is confronted with an image of Caruana Galizia taken in Valletta. He states that he remembers seeing her in Valletta in he same clothes as the ones in the image, but again says that he did not take pictures of her.

4pm: The questions turn to security at Castille. He says that the army is responsible, and that the Prime Minister has his own security service. Gafa states that Ray Barbara would look after these details.

3.59pm: The board questions Gafa’s reasons behind posting such images even though he is not a journalist. “It sounds bad, but it’s the same as she used to do to other people”, he replies. “So that makes it okay?” “My father got a stroke because of her articles, three years ago right after she started writing about me”, he replies.

3.57pm: Therese Comodini Cachia now starts her own set of questions. Gafa is asked about captions he wrote on social media which detailed Caruana Galizia’s movements. Gafa says that he knew the movements because people told him where they had seen her. “Did you ever see her in Valletta?”, Comodini Cachia asks. “Yes, I knew her and had a good rapport with her”, he replies. “Where did you know her?”, the board asks “From when I used to work at a shop specialising in glasses – I sometimes even served her myself”, he replies.

3.54pm: Gafa confirms that Fenech and Schembri are good friends, but he repeats that he never saw Fenech at Castille.

3.53pm: The atmosphere is much calmer than last Monday’s sitting. Gafa is soft-spoken, while the lawyers look on, listening intently.

3.52pm: “Do you know anyone who was pleased about her death?” the board asks. “Never in the Office of the Prime Minister. It’s a homicide,” he says. He is asked about 17 Black, and he says that he knows nothing more than what the media has said about it. He is asked whether he had spoken to Keith Schembri about the subject, even after it was revealed to be Yorgen Fenech’s. “No, never”, he replies.

3.50pm: Judge Mallia asks about the picture of Caruana Galizia and her husband that he had published the day before she was assassinated. He confirms that he did post the pictures but notes that he did not take them. “A lot of people sent me the photos,” he says. “Why did you do it?”, the board asks. Gafa momentarily pauses, before saying that “She used to do it to other people, to friends of mine”.

3.47pm: Gafa faces questions about how Schembri felt about Caruana Galizia’s writing. Gafa explains that Schembri had never retaliated, but certain stories – such as when Caruana Galizia had said that Schembri has cancer and has three years to live – had an effect on him and his family.

3.45pm: Gafa states that he had also worked at the Gozo Ministry at a point, and had opened an office. He states that he was granted a diplomatic passport which he had handed back to Robert Abela when the latter became Prime Minister. He said that OPM had felt that due to the situation in Libya he should have a diplomatic passport, and also confirms that he had once gone to Libya with Kenneth Camilleri. However, he says that he has never been abroad with Keith Schembri or met him abroad.

3.41pm: He said that he had once been contacted by Caruana Galizia on a Sunday morning about a story which she was working on, but he had not answered her. “Because I had not replied, she took it as if I was confirming her theory”, he said. He noted that he is not under any criminal investigation.

3.37pm: Gafa is handed a pack of papers – ostensibly one of the dossiers that Corinne Vella – and asked to identify some of his posts. He obliges. Judge Mallia asks why he felt the need to post such images. “Because her writing used to hurt me a lot”, he said.

3.34pm: He is shown pictures which he had posted. He says that there was no particular reason why he had repeatedly posted the same pictures of Caruana Galizia. He says that these pictures are publicly available and can be found on Google. “I never personally took any pictures of Caruana Galizia,” Gafa points out.

3.33pm: The board points out that he had uploaded numerous posts attacking Daphne Caruana Galizia. “I did, but she did on me as well […] the worst was that she used to upload pictures of my family,” Gafa replies as he hands the board a folder of her posts which made reference to him. “Were your posts a retaliation?” the board asks. “Yes, I would think so,” Gafa says.

3.32pm: Gafa also confirms that he is also a patient of Adrian Vella, the doctor who allegedly acted as secret messenger between Keith Schembri and Yorgen Fenech. He confirms that Vella knows Schembri as well.

3.31pm: Gafa is asked whether he remained friends with Keith Schembri even after his resignation. “Yes of course”, he replies. The board points out that he lives very close to Schembri – Gafa confirms this, noting they only live 5 minutes away.

3.29pm: He says that he never saw Yorgen Fenech at Castille. He is asked about Kenneth Camilleri. “He was a colleague of mine, and we are friends”, Gafa replies before confirming that Camilleri still works there.

3.28pm: Gafa is asked about his relationship with Keith Schembri. “Were you friends?” – “Yes”, he replies. Gafa explains that he got to know Schembri in 2008 having helped in the election of Joseph Muscat as Labour Party leader.

3.27pm: He reveals that he was always a person of trust within the Prime Minister’s office, even when he worked with the health ministry. He says that he used to represent the health ministry at Castille, noting that every ministry had a representative there.

3.25pm: Gafa is asked about his current employment. He states that at the moment he is not employed, but notes that “I was coordinator of the Prime Minister before resigning in January this year”. Before that, he states, he worked with the health ministry as of 2013. He explains that he had become the Prime Minister’s coordinator in November 2019. He explains that this role was to coordinate between the Prime Minister and other ministries. “I was in the second floor, the same as the Prime Minister”, he explains.

3.22pm: Neville Gafa now takes the stand. Gafa takes the oath with a difference – he takes the oath on the Koran.

3.18pm: Corinne Vella, Daphne’s sister, now takes the stand to submit another batch of information concerning Neville Gafa – who will testify in the coming minutes – to complement what she had submitted to the board last Monday. The dossier is 45 pages long and includes more posts from Gafa’s social media accounts about Caruana Galizia.

3.17pm: The argument dies down and brings Vella’s testimony to an end.

3.16pm: Jason Azzopardi asks whether Vella had ever written blogs for the Labour Party while he served as a public servant. Vella says he did, but does not see the problem in expressing his opinions noting that members of the previous administration had done the same thing. The article in question was from January 2019 and the subject was Godfrey Leone Ganado. Further arguments ensue between the lawyers and the witness, but the inquiry shouts them down, saying the lawyers will be thrown out of the sitting if they don’t behave.

3.11pm: Comodini Cachia points out that since Vella was working with the Labour Party, perhaps he can answer things about the goings-on in the Labour Party Headquarters. “I was on the third floor”, Vella explains but states that he cannot remember who he had seen there. He does point out that he had never seen Sandro Chetcuti there.

3.06pm: Comodini Cachia asks whether he had discussed statements with Keith Schembri and what his relationship with him was. Vella states that Schembri was his chief of staff, and that for statements he simply used to follow direction or points given from his superiors in order to draft the statements.

3.02pm: The questions change topic. Comodini Cachia asks whether there were any government statements which referenced and identified Caruana Galizia by name, to which Vella replies that he does not recall exactly, but does not know what went on before July 2017.

3.01pm: Vella is asked where a particular person works, but states he doesnt know. “Doesn’t some common sense come to you to protect all the people inside? Haven’t you raised alarm as to who these people were? This is a serious security breach,” the board tells Vella. Vella remains silent, before finally saying that it is not his duty to do so. “So if someone is killing someone in front of you, you wouldn’t do anything because it’s not your job,” Madam Justice Lofaro replies. The board is increasingly annoyed at Vella – Madam Justice Lofaro is in an especially bullish mood.

2.57pm: Vella names Joseph Scerri, Nikhail Spiteri, Jason Bonnici, Nigel Vella (an electrician), and Ronnie Vella from the pictures – his superior Matthew Carbone had identified them last Monday as well. He also identified Lionel Gerada – the Malta Tourism Authority’s Events Director, whom Carbone had said was some sort of supplier. Reuben Sciberras, Joseph Catania, and Mark Gauci are three others who Vella identifies.

2.52pm: Vella is now identifying people from the photos, but not before noting that the majority of them had already been identified. Therese Comodini Cachia points out that if he did not know the names of the persons, he could at least mention where he recognises them from. Another argument ensues between the witness and Madam Justice Lofaro, as she questions how he could not know who the people in the room were. “What if one of them was armed?”, she questions. “It’s not my problem – I don’t let them in,” he replies although he also notes that there were people who had acted in a threatening manner towards them. “Including those in the room?”, Lofaro asks. “No,” he replies. “But to the journalists, they were (threatening),” Lofaro states – “That’s what you’re saying,” Vella fires back. It’s a remark which Lofaro doesn’t take kindly to: “You’re being arrogant. Watch how you answer. We aren’t at the monti,” she says.

2.46pm: The board notes that Vella was waiting right behind the door on that night, and ask what he was doing there. “Waiting for the Prime Minister”, he replies.

2.42pm: Madam Justice Lofaro is especially losing her patience with Vella, and insists that he answers the “yes or no” question. Vella again replies that it was standard practice. “So you are saying that yes the journalists could not exit”, Lofaro tells him. “That’s not what I said”, Vella replies. “So you are not going to answer the question”, Lofaro fires back. Vella says that he has answered it. “You should have brought a tape recorder and pressed the button to say the exact same thing over and over,” Lofaro sarcastically replies to him.

2.40pm: Questions turn to the events on 28 and 29 November, when journalists were kept inside the Ambassador’s Hall in Castille for a few minutes after the press conference given by then PM Joseph Muscat on the decision not to give immunity to Yorgen Fenech, the man accused with complicity in the murder.. Vella states that no journalists were locked into the room and that the handling of the matter was “normal practice”. The board is not convinced at all and points out that the journalists had tried to leave but weren’t allowed. “Where they blocked from exiting? Yes or No?”, they ask. Vella replies: “Let me explain the process” The board intervenes again “Yes or no?” Vella repeats the same thing, which irritates the board further.

2.37pm: “We are here to find the truth. If nobody is telling us the truth, then we aren’t going to find it”, Judge Said Pullicino explains. “I can only tell you what I know”, Vella states. “You seem to know nothing then”, Lofaro fires back before reminding him that he is under oath.

neville gafa says he handed back diplomatic passport to new pm daphnes writing hurt me - Neville Gafa says he handed back diplomatic passport to new PM; Daphne's writing 'hurt me'

2.36pm: The board has remained on this issue, with Vella repeating that he was simply doing his job and what he was told. The board is not at all impressed. “Why did they hire you if you can’t even pass feedback or contribute?”, the board tell Vella (above). “It seems that you aren’t understanding my job”, Vella replies – to which the board fires back that they know far more about his job than he does.

2.31pm: Judge Said Pullicino asks whether there was a change of atmosphere at Castille after Caruana Galizia’s assassination. Vella says that personally he was shocked at what happened, but the board intervenes and asks for a more general explanation. Vella says that there were of course discussions, but in connection with his work in the communications team.

2.29pm: The questions turn to 17 Black, with the board asking whether the case had been discussed with his superiors. Vella states that he had once made a reference to it on the street with Keith Schembri, but nothing more than that.

2.28pm: “We never made any conditions when journalists wanted to speak to us,” Vella says when asked whether they had made any stipulations with journalists about subjects which were off-limits in interviews with Joseph Muscat.

2.27pm: Judge Mallia asks Vella what he would say if it resulted that he had in fact shared material from the Truth Project. Vella replies that he doesn’t think that he has shared such items. Madam Justice Lofaro intervenes and states that it resulted that he had. “Watch out because you are under oath,” Lofaro warns. Vella repeats that he doesn’t think he has shared any such content.

2.25pm: He states that he does not know about the ‘Truth Project’, or about a blog called ‘Taste Your Own Medicine’, although he states that he did know about Glen Bedingfield’s blog.

2.24pm: Vella explains that his job is only focused on communicating the government’s message and is never involved in any government discussions on policy. He is asked about the claims the Caruana Galizia murder was connected to fuel smuggling – a story which apparently emanated from Castille. “No one ever told me anything about that story,” he replies.

2.21pm: Vella is asked whether he ever saw Yorgen Fenech at Castille, to which he replies categorically that he never did. He does note however that he did not have access to the floor where Keith Schembri’s office was. Schembri was the OPM chief of staff until last November when he resigned after his name cropped up during police investigations into the murder.

2.20pm: Vella is asked about statements and press events he organised related to the Daphne Caruana Galizia case. “I did what I was told and I facilitated that the press conference go ahead”, Vella says. Madam Justice Lofaro tries to push Vella – “You’re experienced in your role, surely you gave your own input?”. “I only did as my superiors told me to,” Vella replies.

2.16pm: He explains his job, which involves issuing press releases and coordinating other statements and events.

2.12pm: Nigel Vella to testify first. He is the deputy head of government communications. He has held this role since August 2019, but has been working at Castille since 2017. Prior to that he was communications director of the Labour Party.

2.11pm: Judges enter the courtroom. Sitting to start.

2.05pm: Nigel Vella, who is also to testify, is also present. Daphne’s parenst are in the countroom too.

1.50pm: Neville Gafa is at the law courts. Sitting should start at 2pm

 

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