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Malta leader to resign amid protests over reporter’s death

In this Thursday, June 20, 2019 file photo, Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat arrives for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said Sunday Dec. 1, 2019, that he would resign in January following pressure from citizens for the truth about the 2017 car bombing that killed a journalist. (Julien Warnand/Pool via AP, File)

In this Thursday, June 20, 2019 file photo, Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat arrives for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said Sunday Dec. 1, 2019, that he would resign in January following pressure from citizens for the truth about the 2017 car bombing that killed a journalist. (Julien Warnand/Pool via AP, File)

VALLETTA, Malta — Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told the nation Sunday night that he would resign in January following pressure from angry citizens for the truth about the 2017 car bombing that killed a journalist.

In a televised message, Muscat said he has informed Malta’s president that he will quit as leader of the governing Labor Party on Jan. 12 and that "in the days after I will resign as prime minister."

Hours earlier, thousands of Maltese protested outside a courthouse in the capital, Valletta, demanding that he step down.

“As prime minister, I promised two years ago that justice would be done in the case of the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia,” Muscat said, beginning his speech, adding that “today I am here to tell you that I kept my word.”

He noted that in addition to three people arrested soon after the bombing for carrying out the actual attack, now there is “someone accused of being the principal person behind this killing.”

Muscat was referring to prominent Maltese businessman Yorgen Fenech, who on Saturday night, was arraigned on charges of alleged complicity in the killing and of allegedly organizing and financing the bombing. Fenech entered pleas of innocence.

Muscat’s former chief of staff Keith Schembri was allegedly linked to the killing. Schembri was among government members targeted by Caruana Galizia’s investigative reporting. Schembri, who resigned last week, was arrested in the probe but later released. He denies wrongdoing.

The prime minister insisted that he will see to it that “justice is for everyone,’’ and said the investigation is still ongoing.

Muscat’s efforts to reassure the nation that justice will be achieved in the case failed to satisfy the journalist’s loved ones.

“People will be out in the streets again tomorrow,” tweeted one of her sons, Matthew Caruana Galizia, who is also a journalist.

Close to 20,000 Maltese citizens jammed Republic Street outside the courthouse in what was by far the largest turnout so far in weeks of public outpouring of anger and disgust aimed at Muscat's government.

The slain reporter had written extensively about suspected corruption in political and business circles on the European Union nation, which is a financial haven for many investors.

Among her targets were those in Muscat’s political inner circle, including those in his Cabinet. Caruana Galizia was the subject of lawsuits by some of her subjects, including in government. While many celebrated her as an anti-corruption champion, some on the island whose dealings she exposed scorned her work.

“I reiterate my deepest regret that a person, who, with all her positive and negative qualities and contribution toward the democracy of our country, was killed in such a brutal way,’’ Muscat said.

The sensations of genuine sadness and anger for this murder are justified. And I will never accept that someone conveys a signal that in any way he or she is justifying this murder.”

European Parliament lawmakers are due to visit Malta in coming days, amid concerns about the functioning of rule of law on the Mediterranean island nation.

Muscat struck a defensive note.

“Our institutions are strong and they function. Shame on anyone who ridicules them as he or she is ridiculing our country.”

Labor has a comfortable majority in Parliament, indicating that a new party leader could become premier without the need for a national election. That could thwart the opposition conservative party’s hopes to rule the nation.

Muscat, first elected as prime minister in 2013, is serving his second term.

Fenech had requested immunity from prosecution promising to reveal information about government officials. His bid for immunity was rejected first by Muscat on his own and later by Muscat's Cabinet.

“Ms. Caruana Galizia’s family was against this pardon. I was against this pardon,’’ Muscat said.

Participants in Sunday's protest carried photos of the slain journalist as well as placards with the last words she wrote on her blog shortly before getting into her car, which was blown up near her home. "The situation is desperate,'' she had written referring to what she unearthed with her digging into suspected widespread corruption in Malta's political and business circles. On the placards, protesters added the word "still" before ''desperate."

Families with young children, teenagers and the elderly carried Maltese flags and signs demanding both Muscat's resignation and justice.

Affixed to the gate outside the courthouse were copies of a photo that was published on Saturday by Malta Today showing Schembri with the alleged middleman in the case, taxi driver Melvin Theuma. It was unclear where and when the photo was taken.

Theuma recently was granted immunity from the prosecution in exchange for giving details on who was behind the bombing. Shortly after the blast, three men were arrested for allegedly carrying out the actual bombing. No trial date has been set for those three.

Among the demonstrators were Caruana Galizia's family, including her parents, who walked at the head of the protest, behind a banner with the word "justice."

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