By Stephen Grey and Chris Scicluna
VALETTA (Reuters) - One of Malta's wealthiest men, Yorgen Fenech, was charged in a Valletta court on Saturday with complicity to murder in the car bomb killing of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017.
The leveling of official charges against Fenech marked a milestone in the investigation into the murder of Caruana Galizia, a campaigning journalist who investigated and exposed corruption. Fenech's alleged ties to ministers and senior officials has also spawned a political crisis for the government of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who appeared close to resigning on Saturday.
Fenech pleaded not guilty to the charge of complicity to murder and to other charges related to the case, which include membership of a criminal gang, and conspiracy to cause an explosion.
In a statement, Muscat told Reuters he would speak about his future after the hearing. Official sources said he was expected to announce his resignation later in the evening or on Sunday.
No official statement has been issued.
Asked about this before Fenech was charged, a spokesman for the prime minister said that Muscat "has pledged various times he wants to see this case through. He will make announcements in due course".
Fenech, 38, who was until this month chief executive of one of Malta's largest companies, the property-to-energy Tumas Group conglomerate, was taken to court in handcuffs in a police van under a heavy armed police escort almost two years to the day since three other men were charged with having set off the bomb that killed the journalist on Oct. 16, 2017.
The three have pleaded not guilty and are still awaiting trial.
Dressed in a charcoal suit and dark glasses, shaven-headed Fenech stood up to hear the charges in a hushed courtroom less than a metre away from the three sons of Caruana Galizia, who were also joined in the courtroom by her husband Peter, her parents, Michael and Rose Vella, and her sisters.
With music from a nearby bar drifting into the courtroom, the businessman made no application for bail.
Fenech said when he spoke to journalists on Friday that the "truth will come out" and, in court filings, he has made clear he intends to implicate other key members of Muscat's government, in both the murder plot and other corruption.
Sources briefed on the murder investigation told Reuters that police regard Fenech as the mastermind of the journalist's killing. But, in court filings, Fenech has tried to implicate Muscat's former chief of staff Keith Schembri, who was arrested on Tuesday in connection with the murder but released without charge two days later.
Immediately after the hearing, the family of Caruana Galizia urged authorities to continue to probe into who else was involved in the murder.
The family said: "We now expect the Prime Minister to leave office, and parliament, with immediate effect to allow a free and full investigation into his and Keith Schembri's role in Daphne's assassination."
Fenech was arrested on Nov. 20 on his luxury yacht as he allegedly attempted to leave the island, days after another man, Melvin Theuma, was arrested in a money-laundering case and immediately told police he had been the middleman in the murder plot and offered information in return for a pardon.
The Maltese government accepted Theuma's pardon request but later turned down another request for a pardon by Fenech.
Muscat has been in power since 2013, having won two general elections in a row, the last in 2017. His Labour Party is expected to hold a leadership election in January.
Schembri, a close friend and right-hand-man of Muscat, and former Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi both resigned on Tuesday.
Neither Schembri or his lawyers have commented since his resignation or arrest. He previously denied any wrongdoing. Mizzi on Tuesday denied any business links with Fenech and any wrongdoing.
Caruana Galizia had reported that Schembri and Mizzi owned secret companies in Panama. Leaked emails indicated those same companies intended to earn money from an offshore company called 17 Black. Last November, an investigation by Reuters and the Times of Malta showed that 17 Black was owned by Fenech.
There is no evidence that funds were ever transferred to Mizzi and Schembri, and Mizzi has denied any connection with 17 Black or the murder.
Caruana Galizia, 53, was killed by a car bomb as she drove out of her home in Bidnija, seven miles (11 km) from Valletta, just half an hour after writing a blog describing Schembri as "a crook".
Investigators subsequently told a court that the bomb was set off from a yacht off Valletta harbour.
(Reporting by Stephen Grey and Chris Scicluna; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)