Darren Debono wanted the fuel smuggling stories to stop. So he texted me a photo I had of my daughter from my WhatsApp profile

Former MaltaToday executive editor Matthew Vella: 'The Times report is incorrect in giving alleged criminal Darren Debono a platform for his spin on a meeting I was involved in'

Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa and Darren Debono
Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa and Darren Debono

This is my story about the years spent writing on Operation Dirty Oil, the Libyan-Malta-Sicilian mafia smuggling ring and its connection to the secret refuelling of the Russian warship Admiral Kuznetsov - giving clarity to an attempt by Darren Debono to namedrop my employer Saviour Balzan into some overblown drama of his, with The Times.

It is totally untrue that Saviour Balzan told fuel smuggler Darren Debono that he believed Keith Schembri’s false narrative over him in a July 2019 meeting, Balzan said: “We need factual details, that give insight into what was happening, so that we report this story factually… but we cannot publish anything that cannot be shown to be true. What we need is to listen to you… we cannot write one-sided things. You must tell us, off-record… you were in the know about these things. My job is to write stories, to write them as good as possible, I have no other agenda.”

2017 - Just to refresh people’s memory, the Operation Dirty Oil arrests in Lampedusa hit the news exactly one week after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia (16 October, 2017).

For months on end, we were occupied with the contents of the Italian investigators’ dossier on Operaton Dirty Oil, which detailed the system of smuggled oil from Libya, being refined and sent to Italian petrol pumps, through the good offices of Darren Debono and his fleet, his chum Gordon Debono, and their mafia contacts in Sicily, namely Nicola Orazio Romeo(According to his lawyer, Romeo is no ‘mafioso’ – the Sicilian investigators think otherwise, saying he is connected to the Santapaola-Ercolano clan, the latter already having had some Malta links).

The stories continued well over the next year and a half – and now some subtle approaches… call them understated threats… had started.

2018 - First, Debono’s (later) co-accused – former footballer Jeffrey Chetcuti – came to pay me a visit at the MaltaToday offices. I was not available, and didn’t know who he was. He intercepted me as a I took my lunch break right across the road – where we spent an hour in this kind of faux cloak-and-dagger chat, where I had to listen to Chetcuti reminding me that Debono’s children “were suffering at school” over the reports... counselling me, gently, “Issa daqshekk… issa ieqaf, ok?”. And I said that he would have no trouble from me about unnecessary name-dropping of people not connected to the fuel smuggling.

Then months later, jet-setting-instagrammer-her-from-Labour’s-courage-to-vote-ad Florinda Sultana – now charged with money laundering – herself made a scene at the MaltaToday offices, shouting out at me from two floors down, demanding that nobody reports on her OFAC-blacklisted Valletta seafood restaurant.

And then finally, in late 2018, a nice WhatsApp text from Darren Debono – where he sent me a photo, my own WhatsApp profile pic of me walking with my daughter, telling me “nice photo”.

Very subtle. I guess Debono thought he was channelling Tony Soprano on his WhatsApp at that point. “Oh, I don’t mean anything by it...” Debono replied when I challenged him on why he was sending me a photo of me with my daughter. “Family is precious… I have five children… I take care of FAMILY as well.”

Darren Debono's Whatsapp conversation with Matthew Vella
Darren Debono's Whatsapp conversation with Matthew Vella

2019 - In July 2019, Debono crowbarred his way into the MaltaToday offices, presenting himself unannounced, and demanding that he has a word with me, and Saviour Balzan.

It was the day this story was published: Americans told Debono to reveal Malta smuggling networks, detailing how in a bid to lift OFAC sanctions on him, the Americans wanted him to spill the beans on requests by the Russian government to the Maltese government to secretly refuel their warships.

This is what Debono asked of us:

Debono “Ok, ok, ok… my problem is that we have to find a right way how to, number 1, tell Keith Schembri and the Prime Minister, don’t keep pushing on me…”

Debono was feeling the heat from the Americans, who had used OFAC sanctions to freeze banking facilities for his restaurants under the Libya pretext of destabilising fuel sanctions. But the US embassy in Malta had now convinced Castille to demand UN sanctions – unprecedented for the island – on the Debonos; which the Maltese did, either out of geopolitical deference to the Americans, or because Castille wanted to break Debono for some reason (he was at that point in time, not even charged by the Maltese for fuel smuggling – only in Catania! – the Maltese police ignored the fuel smuggling but the government was going to use the Security Council to come down on the smugglers… what the fuck?!)

Malta’s request at the UNSC was blocked... surprise, surprise... by the Russians (Why? I will never believe the Maltese did not expect the Russians at the UNSC to put a technical hold on the request for sanctions... I always harboured the suspicion the Maltese were only too happy not to pursue the browbeating request from the Americans).

Well according to Debono’s one-hour rant in our offices that July 2019, he wanted to send a message to Keith Schembri and Joseph Muscat; to tell them (remember, we’re in the summer of 2019 now, with the investigation on the DCG assassination edging closer to Melvin Theuma and Yorgen Fenech, and hence Castille...) – to stop pushing the rumour that he is involved in the assassination.

Now Saviour Balzan had testified to that extent in the Caruana Galizia public inquiry, that Castille had attempted to derail the media by spinning this narrative. And MaltaToday was certainly not pushing that line. Saviour Balzan laughed off the request. We wanted to know exactly what the Americans had on the Maltese government’s secret refuelling of the Kuznetsov…

But what did Debono have on Schembri and Muscat, or Konrad Mizzi?

Well, it was that the Americans wanted to know, from Debono, whether he was aware of phone-calls from Castille trying to organise the refuelling of Russian warships passing next to Malta. Phone-calls which no doubt, had been made to the Maltese denizens in Marsa and Hurd’s Bank with their ships full of Libyan fuel…

And Debono said as much in the law courts weeks later in August 2019, in an affidavit replying to the sanctions:

Debono filed an affidavit in the Maltese law courts in which he claimed that a naval attaché at the embassy of the United States requested information about a possibly secret refuelling of a Russian warship, after the Maltese government claimed it had refused permission for its docking in Malta.

In the affidavit, Debono said the attaché requested to know what he knew about “when the Russians asked the Maltese government for fuel for warships on their way to Syria, and whether the Maltese government had mounted a mise-en-scene when it refused to do so; and whether it was the case that the Maltese government had supplied the fuel requested outside Maltese territorial waters.”

After that meeting, we informed the police of the meeting; explaining the context of the ‘threatening’ messages I had previously received from Debono and his relatives/acquaintances.

Debono made yet another visit – as I parked the car on Tal-Balal Road, he stopped his own car by the side of the road, leaving the door open as he ‘accompanied’ me to the newsroom, apparently expecting that after having met us, no more stories should be written about him. Once inside, he started banging his fists on the walls and making another scene, desperate, as I understood, about being mentioned in the press, and always pleading about the suffering endured by his ageing parents and children. This time, we had to call his lawyers – Stephen Tonna Lowell, now vice-president of the Chamber of Advocates – to have a word with his client.

Debono's affidavit
Debono's affidavit

Now he is trying to flog the story of the alleged frame-up, with The Times by trying to suggest that Saviour Balzan, in this meeting with me, could have played some part in this storyline. It is totally untrue. The Times should have sought better clarifications on what Debono was claiming.

MaltaToday never even picked up the smugglers’ line on the Daphne assassination. Debono is a liar, and a criminal, who sought out MaltaToday in a bid to get two other political criminals off his back… he only wanted the newspaper that was reporting about Operation Dirty Oil, to stop reporting about him.

Matthew Vella's response to Darren Debono's allegations were also posted on his Substack profile.