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Former Chief of Staff to Maltese ex-PM arrested amid money laundering investigation

By Elizabeth Hearst

The Maltese former Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Keith Schembri has been arrested as part of an on-going investigation into money laundering. 

Reuters reports that Schembri was arrested as part of an investigation into funds obtained through the sale of Maltese passports. 

A court ordered for all Schembri’s and his family’s assets and companies to be frozen and he was arrested just hours later. Also questioned alongside Schembri is Brian Tonna, a high profile Maltese accountant and one of his associates, although all three men deny any wrongdoing. 

Schembri resigned his post in November 2019, shortly before the former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat stepped down in January 2020. 

The Prime Minister resigned following the arrest of Schembri’s close associate Yorgen Fenech, in relation to the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

Galizia worked as an investigative journalist specialising in anti-corruption, nepotism and money laundering, she was murdered by a car bomb close to her home in 2017. 

Fenech is suspected to be the mastermind behind her murder, and has denied any involvement in the attack. Schembri was a close associate of Fenech’s and attended crucial police meetings with Muscat following her murder. 

The present allegations against Schembri relate to funds obtained through the sale of Maltese passports and the suspected laundering of funds. Schembri’s associate Tonna is suspected to have acted as a Maltese citizenship agent, in which he helped sell passports to non-EU citizens, as reported by The Guardian. 

Malta’s financial analysis unit reported in 2016 that Tonna had received payments from three Russian nationals who purchased Maltese passports and transferred €100,000 to Schembri via a British Virgin Islands company belonging to Tonna. He previously denied all wrongdoing and claimed that the funds were related to a repayment of a loan from Schembri. 

Under the freezing order made by the attorney general, it requests hundreds of companies and individuals in Malta to potentially present their accounts to investigators. 

Malta began selling passports to wealthy foreign nationals in 2014, with many of those purchasing passports hailing from Russia, China and Arabians. Prior to her death, Galizia had published numerous reports into “golden passports” in Malta and companies and public officials involved. 

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