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FILE PHOTO: Matthew Caruana Galizia, son of assassinated investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and her mother Rose Vella attend a vigil and demonstration marking eight months since her murder in a car bomb, in Valletta, Malta June 16, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

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VALLETTA (Reuters) - A Maltese magistrate on Wednesday refused bail to three men accused of murdering Maltese anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia last year, saying they could flee and their release would upset the public.

"The way the murder was committed was very disturbing and bore a close resemblance to a mafia execution. Therefore the court feels it should protect society from the disturbance which granting bail would create," Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit said in her decreed denying bail.

"The victim was not an ordinary individual, she was a journalist, and therefore her murder can be interpreted as an attack on freedom of expression, which is one of the pillars of our society," she said.

Alfred Degiorgio, his brother George Degiorgio, and Vince Muscat were arrested at the end of last year and accused of the October 2017 car-bomb assassination, though police have said they suspect the murder was ordered by someone else.

In pre-trial hearings, prosecutors said the bomb had been placed in Caruana Galizia's car and set off by a text message from a mobile phone on a yacht belonging to the Degiorgios.

Stafrace Zammit has already ruled that there is enough evidence for the three to be tried, but the trial's start date has not been set. All three are pleading not guilty.

On Wednesday, the magistrate said her decision was based on the gravity of the crime and her belief that "on the basis of their record" the men probably would not hesitate to flee if granted bail.

The accused may not have acted alone, she said, so their release could also interfere with efforts to track down others who may have been involved.

Since Caruana Galizia's murder, Malta has come under pressure from European Union institutions, with an inquiry under way on its banking supervision and calls for investigations into the Mediterranean island country's rule of law.

(Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Steve Scherer and Mark Heinrich)

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Reuters