Court orders release of vessel seized over disproven fuel smuggling allegations

Paul Piscopo’s trawler, the MFC Alexander, had been seized by customs officials in 2009 

Vessel owner Paul Piscopo
Vessel owner Paul Piscopo

A fishing operator who had been cleared of fuel smuggling has successfully contested the seizure of his fishing trawler by the tax authorities, with the Court of Appeal suggesting that the law should be changed. 

Paul Piscopo, owner of the MFC Alexander I and his wife Alexandra had filed an application in the civil court requesting the release of their fishing trawler, which had been seized by customs officials in 2009. 

The trawler had been bought from Egypt and sailed to Malta with around 25,000 litres of diesel aboard. After its arrival in Malta with around 17,000 litres of fuel on board, its owners had realised that the vessel needed maintenance and repairs. This led to the emptying of its fuel tanks, which was earmarked for use in another fishing vessel. But their plans went awry when customs officials stopped the driver of the van transporting 6 tanks of 1000 litres of fuel from one vessel to another. 

READ ALSO: Fisher in fuel smuggling investigation claims he is ‘sacrificial lamb’ 

Both the van driver and Piscopo were subsequently cleared of fuel smuggling and illegal importation of diesel, judgements confirmed on appeal in July. 

Piscopo’s lawyers started proceedings to obtain the release of the trawler which had been seized by the Director General of Customs. 

The Court of Appeal, presided by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti and judges Giannino Caruana Demajo and Anthony Ellul revoked the First Hall’s decision. The court observed that in the criminal proceedings there had been no evidence that Piscopo had the intention of selling the fuel for profit. As it had been shown that he intended to use the diesel in another vessel for fishing reasons, the duty imposed on the fuel was null at law. 

The court concluded that taxes were not due on the fuel and that the seizure of the vessel was a “permanent and excessive” measure. Upholding the appeal, the court observed that the time had come for the legislator to amend the law to allow such issues to be solved during the criminal process, without necessitating the owners filing a separate civil case to request the release of their property. 

The court ordered a copy of the sentence be sent to the Minister for Justice. 

Lawyers David Camilleri and Joseph Gatt assisted Piscopo. 

READ ALSO: Vessel seized for carrying contraband fuel was only carrying water and sludge, owners say