[WATCH] Boats that carried Libya mercenaries lacked permit from Malta sanctions board

James Fenech company that leased RHIBs to Western pro-Haftar mercenaries left Malta without Sanctions Monitoring Board permit

James Fenech, the owner of Sovereign Charterers. Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday
James Fenech, the owner of Sovereign Charterers. Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday
Boats that carried Libya mercenaries lacked permit from Malta sanctions board

Permission to sail to Libya was never requested from the Sanctions Monitoring Board by the charterers operating RHIBs that were used to ferry mercenaries from the war-torn North African country to Malta. 

Lawyers for Maltese businessman James Fenech, who is accused of breaching EU sanctions on Libya, told a court this morning that Fenech’s company Sovereign Charterers had simply chartered boats to evacuate a group of oil workers from Libya. 

Fenech appeared in the dock before Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, accused together with four Maltese men, Michael Cauchi, Konrad Agius, Charles Bugeja and Bertrand Agius of supplying men and equipment to a UAE company now suspected of acting as a front to assist mercenaries in a helicopter gunship operation for General Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army.

READ Investigators uncover roles of mercenaries in UAE-backed Libya helicopter gunship plan

Inspector Omar Zammit told the magistrate that the 20 men on the RHIB which arrived in Malta last year had told the authorities that they were employed by a geological survey company. Asked why they had left Libya on the boats, they had said that they had done so because they had become concerned by the increased military presence in Benghazi. 

It emerged that the UAE firm Opus Capital had made an agreement with Sovereign Charterers for the RHIBs, which were registered as pleasure boats and rented for €15,000 each. 

€480,000 were paid to Opus by Maltese company Lancaster 6 Limited for the contract, Fenech had told the police. 

In comments outside court, James Fenech confirmed with MaltaToday of having known Lancaster 6’s CEO Christiaan Durrant, a sometime Malta resident and former associate of Blackwater founder Erik Prince. Lancaster 6 and Opus Capital were the primary companies used for the mercenaries’ mission, dubbed ‘Project Opus’. 

A charter party agreement for the boats was given to the police by Fenech, Inspector Zammit confirmed. 

Zammit said that Malta’s Sanctions Monitoring Board had said there was a breach of sanctions when the RHIBs left Malta without the necessary clearance. 

Fenech’s defence lawyer Joe Giglio said Sovereign Charters rents out vessels under charter party agreements. “These 20 people leaving Libya were employees of Opus Capital and their company had brought RHIBs to evacuate personnel if necessary,” he went on. 

Zammit confirmed that the charter party and crew list were given to the police without difficulty by James Fenech. Opus Capital also engaged law firm Mamo TCV to check the charter party agreement, the court was told. 

Reading from the charter party agreement, Giglio said that it had been written that the charter party was being made for the purpose of evacuation of oil and gas personnel. “So in reality. Sovereign Charterers, didn’t hide the fact that the RHIBs would be used in Libya,” Giglio told the court. 

Mamo TCV, in the charter party agreement, said that it would be up to the charterers Opus Capital to obtain permission to enter the territorial waters of any country. 

But Zammit replied that the operator needed to get clearance before travelling to Libya. 

In reply to Giglio, Zammit admitted the police had not checked the transponders on the RHIBs. 

Neville Aquilina, the chairman of the Sanctions Monitoring Board, said permission to transfer the boats to Libya was never requested from the Sanctions Monitoring Board. Aside from going to customs, immigration and lawyers with the agreement, Sovereign needed “a paper” from the board to authorise the transfer. This authorisation was not requested or given, he said. 

“All they had needed was a stamp from the Sanctions Monitoring Board,” Giglio said. 

Meanwhile, the court lifted the freezing orders imposed on all defendants bar Fenech and Bugeja, after the prosecution declared that there was no longer a need for them. The defence requested the lifting of the freezing order on the other two men.