Malta's ex-leader and others plead not guilty in a hospital fraud scandal that is roiling politics

Malta’s former prime minister, Joseph Muscat, and other former top officials pleaded not guilty in court Tuesday to charges in a hospital corruption scandal that is roiling the Mediterranean island nation as it prepares for European Parliament elections.

The case involves a deal, originally struck in 2015, in which the management of three of the country’s hospitals was handed over to a private company. The concessionaire changed in 2018.


In February 2023, a court annulled the concession, citing fraud, in a case filed by a former opposition leader. The ruling led to a sharp drop in popular support for the governing Labour Party. The Court of Appeal confirmed the decision in October, ruling that there was evidence of collusion between the parties in the concession.

A magisterial inquiry into the hospital agreement was completed in April. Soon after, charges including bribery were filed in court against people involved in the hospital deal.

Three of the first group to face court were Muscat, who led the country between 2013 and 2020, his former chief of staff Keith Schembri and former minister Konrad Mizzi. At a pre-trial hearing on Tuesday, they pleaded not guilty to charges relating to bribery and money laundering, among others.

Other defendants will also face charges on Wednesday, including Chris Fearne, who resigned as deputy prime minister days after news of the charges emerged. He has publicly denied the charges. The Governor of the Central Bank of Malta, Edward Scicluna, will also be in court on Wednesday.

A few hundred Muscat supporters had gathered in front of the courthouse ahead of the hearing, chanting slogans backing the former leader, who still is highly popular among some Labour Party voters.

The scandal has dominated Maltese politics as the European Parliament election nears.

Prime Minister Robert Abela, also a member of the Labour Party, has questioned the timing of the inquiry’s outcome, noting that “after four and a half years, it concluded precisely with the opening for the candidacy for the European Parliament elections.”

Abela also raised questions about the inquiry process itself, such as whether those accused were given the chance to be heard by investigators. His comments sparked an outcry, with the opposition describing his statements as attacks on the judiciary.

The Labour Party has dominated elections in the small country since 2013, winning each vote by a landslide. In the most recent general election in 2022, the Labour Party won 162,707 votes, to the Nationalist Party’s 123,233.

But the events unfolding since last year have seen the party’s popularity fall.

Malta holds six seats in the European Parliament. Four are currently occupied by Labour Party members and two by Nationalist Party members. One of the latter seats is held by Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament.

While the Labour Party is still expected to get the majority of votes, that might not be enough to ensure that it keeps hold of all four of its seats, and the Nationalist Party is hoping to attain a third seat in the election.

In the 2014 European Parliament election, it managed to grab three seats despite receiving 33,000 votes less than the Labour Party.

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