Joseph Muscat: 2019 Man of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption

Daphne Caruana Galizia. Photo: Transparency International
Daphne Caruana Galizia. Photo: Transparency International

A murdered journalist. Shady offshore deals. A tiny nation in the grip of large-scale criminal interests. These are the leading factors behind the selection of Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat as the OCCRP 2019 Person of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption.

Under Muscat’s leadership, according to Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), criminality and corruption have flourished — and in many cases gone unpunished — in the small Mediterranean archipelago of Malta, creating an environment that led to the 2017 murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, investigators and government critics say.

The Maltese government’s investigation into the killing of the journalist, who exposed corruption at the highest levels of Muscat’s government, foundered for years. But that changed in November when authorities arrested the alleged mastermind, a Maltese businessman who is a close friend of Muscat’s longtime associate and former top aide, Keith Schembri.

According to OCCRP, Schembri was recently detained and questioned in connection with the killing. The OCCRP report adds that throughout the process, Muscat has been openly dismissive of the allegations and has refused to remove those involved from their government posts.

“Muscat has shown a total disdain for the media, free speech, and has allowed corrupt figures to order killings with impunity,” said Louise I. Shelley, the founder and director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at the Schar School of Government and Policy at George Mason University. “OCCRP through this award honors the courageous investigators of the heinous murder and shows that the powerful can be brought to account.”

Shelley is one of eight experts in the field of organized crime, corruption, and terrorism who sat on the judging panel that unanimously named Muscat the OCCRP Person of the Year. The annual award shines a light on the individual or institution that has done the most to advance organized criminal activity and corruption in a given year.

Other finalists for 2019 included:

US President Donald J. Trump, who is accused of breaking the law by pressuring Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate a political rival in the upcoming US presidential election. He faces a Senate impeachment trial on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s self-proclaimed personal attorney, who is under federal investigation into whether he illegally put pressure on Ukraine to pursue a conspiracy theory involving the president’s political rival.

Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso, the son of the longtime president of the Republic of Congo, who is accused in a corruption scheme that saw US$50 million siphoned off from the Congolese treasury. He was also implicated in a 2018 OCCRP investigation and accused — along with other family members — of accepting millions of dollars in bribes to unlock Congo’s oil fields.

In the end, the OCCRP panel believed the actions of Malta’s prime minister constituted the most extreme form of corruption.

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Rakesh Raman