Suspected smuggler to be extradited to Italy

Investigators believe Paul Attard has evaded the police by using tugboats to tow in vessels with illegal goods – when caught, the crews claim they were helping another ship in need

The Maltese courts have ordered the extradition to Italy of a suspected smuggler and shipper, Paul Attard, who is wanted to face trial over the trafficking of 10 tonnes of hashish on his fishing vessel, the Quest.

The Dutch-flagged vessel was intercepted in international waters after departing Malta in 2018, for Algeria on a voyage allegedly organised by Maltese drug traffickers.

It changed its route when it arrived in front of the Moroccan coast and started to proceed towards Alexandria, Egypt. The Italian Guardia di Finanza, which had been observing the vessel closely, sent a boarding team on the fishing vessel some 40 hours later, after the flag state granted them permission to do so.

10 tonnes of hashish were found in the vessel’s cold room. After investigating the massive drug haul, the Italian authorities issued a European Arrest Warrant for Paul Attard in connection with the drugs bust. He was subsequently taken into custody in Malta.

A judge this week denied all Attard’s appeals, except one in which he asked to serve any eventual prison sentence handed down by the Italian authorities, in a Maltese prison.

The court ordered that Attard be returned to face justice in Italy under the original European Arrest Warrant, specifying that he be held in custody until his return takes place.

The Quest’s seizure led Italian prosecutors in September 2018 to indict a Maltese man named Paul Attard, after the boat’s crew testified in Catania that Attard, 43, was the mastermind behind the hashish transport from Morocco. Evidence collected by police indicates that Attard’s relative and ship captain, David Bonello, communicated with Attard during the voyage.

Attard has previously declared he was never the owner of the ship, but that he helped put together a crew and a boat for a Ukranian contact, through a broker – Irishman Joseph O’Connor, who is based in Malta. O’Connor fixes up broken vessels which he resells. In two cases, the boats were later intercepted in drug smuggling busts; in another case, in 2005 he was acquitted of trafficking hashish on the Spanish high seas.

The Quest was in fact owned by O’Connor’s company Malta Towage. O’Connor’s lawyer had told the OCCRP reporters that O’Connor’s other company, Britannia Shipping International, sold the Quest a Ukrainian named Mykola Khodariev, in May 2018, three weeks before the hashish bust.

Investigators believe Attard has evaded the police by using tugboats to tow in vessels with illegal goods – when caught, the crews claim they were helping another ship in need. In June 2017, Attard’s Med Patron cargo ship sailed from from Bar, Montenegro to meet up with two tug boats on Hurd’s Bank – one which he had chartered, the other which he represented as agent. Police believe that David Bonello directed a ship-to-ship operation in which more than 6,000 master cases of cigarettes were transferred from the Med Patron to the tugs; Spanish police then intercepted one of the tugboats on Spanish waters, arresting the crew. Attard denied owning the Med Patron, despite ship registration papers showing otherwise.

Extradition process

In November, Attard  filed an appeal to a judgement by the Maltese Court of Magistrates in which it was decided that he would be extradited to Italy.

Arrested on 6 September, his case was assigned to magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, who however abstained on 7 September having already presided and rejected a previous request for his extradition in June 2019, ruling that the extradition request was marred by formal defects and that the Italians had not abided by either EU or their own laws.

The case was then assigned to Magistrate Joseph Mifsud, who also decreed that he should abstain. The Chief Justice subsequently assigned the case to Magistrate Doreen Clarke, who immediately held a sitting on 13 September.

Attard was released on 4 October, the court ruling that the crime for which his extradition was being requested was not an extraditable offence.

Both Attard and the Attorney General filed appeals to this judgement: Attard’s appeal was declared irregular and null; the Attorney General’s was partially upheld. As a result, the decision to release Attard was revoked and the extradition case was ordered to continue before the Court of Magistrates.

Magistrate Clarke then abstained from hearing the case, which was subsequently assigned to Magistrate Noel Bartolo.

Attard then requested a Constitutional reference, to decide whether his remand in custody during his right of appeal was in breach of his rights. The court ruled against him on 10 November, and a sitting for a final decision was set for 15 November.

But on 12 November, Attard’s lawyers filed a request for a delay in sentencing, to allow him to make further submissions because the Attorney General had failed to present a note explaining Malta’s position vis-à-vis jurisdiction under the framework of the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. That same day, the AG exhibited a number of judgments it made reference to during the proceedings.

On 15 November, the day judgement was supposed to be handed down, Attard  filed two court applications: first accusing the prosecution of dereliction of duty, and asking to be allowed to debate the bars to extradition once again; and the second requesting the court to order the Italian authorities to communicate to it any information relating to the case which they had received from Holland.

Attard withdrew the first request on the bars to extradition; the court denied the second request, ruling that there was no need for further information for its decision to be made.

Lengthy submissions were presented the day after on 16 November, where the court handed down judgement against Attard, ordering him to be returned to Italy to face trial.

Appeals court: ‘nullity does not result’

Attard appealed, arguing that the extradition decision was afflicted by a “substantial lack of formalities” that rendered it null.

Attard argued that the decision ordered him to be held in custody awaiting extradition, when the law either ordered return or release; the Appeals Court accepted that clearer language could have been used by the first court, but “there was no equivocation or uncertainty” and turned down the argument.

The court also dismissed Attard’s plea that a 60-day period had been exceeded, saying it was not strictly bound to release him after that period. The law allows the authorities to inform Eurojust in exceptional cases where the period is overrun and give reasons for the delay; the judge pointed out that Attard himself caused delays with his request for additional information from Italy.

Since Attard is not being charged in Malta for the same offences he is being extradited for, there are no bars to extradition. The Court of Magistrates had still invested itself in a discussion about proceedings in Malta, given that Attard himself asked for a delay to be able to debate bars, based on the prosecution’s failure to begin proceedings against him in Malta. The discussion was therefore about “inexistent facts”, said the judge.

Attard was not charged in Malta due to a jurisdictional issue decided by the court on 28 October, with the judge arguing that Attard was “now trying to invoke an impediment to extradition that was not part of the law due to a failure by the legislator to completely implement the Framework Decision... In other words, the extraditee is attempting to introduce a reason to impugn the judgement of this Court as differently presided.”

The judge even denied Attard’s request for a preliminary reference to the European Court of Justice, saying the request did not satisfy the legal requisites for this procedure.

Inspector Mark Galea prosecuted. Lawyer George Camilleri represented the Office of the Attorney General in the proceedings. Lawyer Arthur Azzopardi and Franco Debono appeared for Attard.