VALLETTA (Reuters) - A second magistrate in less than a week has recused herself from hearing court evidence in Malta against three men accused of the murder of anti-corruption blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia.
The double abstention has jeopardised the launch of judicial proceedings against the three men and underscored the interwoven nature of public life on the Mediterranean island of Malta - the smallest nation in the European Union.
The initial magistrate assigned to the case stood down last Thursday after defence lawyers complained that she knew one of Caruana Galizia's sisters and had sent her condolences following the Oct. 16 killing.
On Monday, a replacement magistrate, Charmaine Galea, said she was also withdrawing from the case because the blogger had written about her and her alleged connections to the government. She said that justice had to be done and be seen to be done.
Another magistrate will now be assigned by the drawing of lots, but it was not immediately clear when that might happen.
Under Maltese law, the compilation of evidence must begin within a 30-day time frame and a lawyer for Caruana Galizia's family warned the delays could sink the case.
The trio were charged on Dec. 4, giving the court until Jan. 4 to start hearing the evidence. Once police have made their case, the magistrate decides whether it should go to trial.
The three suspects, brothers Alfred and George Degiorgio, and Vince Muscat have denied any wrongdoing. The three were known to local police and had never been the target of any of Caruana Galizia's often fierce blogs. [nL8N1O56U9]
Caruana Galizia was killed instantly when the car she was driving was blown up. [nL8N1MU7FD]
According to Maltese media, the three suspects were arrested on the basis of phone intercepts and analysis of triangulation data showing their locations at the time of the murder.
The reports said one of the suspects had to call a local telecom company shortly before the bomb went off to top up the credit on the mobile phone that was used to detonate the explosives - a error that led police straight to the trio.
The government has announced a one-million-euro ($1.2-million) reward to anyone giving enough information for convictions. Caruana Galizia's family have denounced the handling of the case and expressed fears that those behind the murder will never be brought to justice. ($1 = 0.8482 euros)
(Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Crispian Balmer/Mark Heinrich)