Italian man arrested in connection with drug trafficking, remanded in custody

Police find cocaine and cannabis with a street value of €450,000 following the arrest of a 29-year-old man

Malta Police Force
Malta Police Force

Updated at 5pm following court sitting

A St. Paul’s Bay resident has been remanded in custody after being charged in connection with the discovery of 1.2kg of cocaine and a total of 14kg of cannabis in various properties.

Café owner Gennaro Russo, 29, from Naples, was arraigned by drugs squad police inspectors Mark Anthony Mercieca and Justine Grech before magistrate Rachel Montebello this afternoon, accused of trafficking cocaine and cannabis and aggravated possession of the same. Russo was also accused of money laundering.

Mercieca told the court that Russo, who owns properties and businesses in Malta, came up during the course of investigations into drug trafficking. Yesterday at around noon, police executing a warrant issued by magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech stopped Russo’s vehicle as he was driving in Naxxar. A search of the suspect and his car was carried out, said the inspector, adding that sachets of illegal substances were found on Russo’s person and €20,000 in cash were recovered from his car.

The suspect was informed that further searches would be carried out at his properties He told the police that he owned a garage and a house in Bugibba. Police used Russo’s keys to enter the garage, where they found around 1.2Kg of suspected cocaine sealed in a box, together with around 2kg of cannabis grass and 500g of cannabis resin.

The evidence showed that the drugs were being divided into smaller sachets in the garage, in order to be sold. A large number of bags containing traces of cannabis were found.

Another €4,000 and a small amount of cannabis grass was recovered from Russo’s home, said the inspector, adding that the accused had exercised his right to silence during questioning.

The next day, on 16 December, the police discovered another garage in Msida used by Russo. Russo was taken there and it was opened using his keys. Three large shopping bags, full of smaller bags containing suspected cannabis grass, weighing approximately 9kg were found, together with another 3kg of cannabis resin. There was nothing else in this garage except the substances, said the inspector, telling the court that the police were currently working on tracing the owners of the garage.

Russo again did not answer questions relating to the find, said Mercieca.

This morning, another garage in Qawra was opened using keys from Russo’s keychain and bags containing suspected traces of cannabis, together with a suitcase full of €215,000 in cash were discovered there. A weapon and ammunition were also found in a box in the garage.

Russo’s partner is also being investigated, and the police were collecting more keys from various sources, added the inspector.

Magistrate Caroline Farrugia Frendo is conducting a magisterial inquiry into the find.

Having heard the inspector testify, Magistrate Rachel Montebello ruled the arrest to be valid. She pointed out to the accused that the charges had serious consequences, telling him that he had a right to remain silent and that anything he said could be used against him.

Russo’s defence lawyer, Franco Debono, registered an objection to the prosecution’s request for the issuing of an order freezing the accused’s assets. The court, however said it was upholding the request, ordering the man’s assets be frozen in the hands of third parties. Russo was also prohibited from disposing of or transferring his property.

The accused entered a not guilty plea. Defence lawyers Franco Debono, Marion Camilleri and Alex Scerri Herrera requested bail for their client, arguing that the evidence had been preserved in the inquiry. “What many don’t realise is that the evidence collected in the inquiry do not even need to be exhibited in the compilation of evidence, actually they need the permission of the court to do so. This is how much the inquiry’s probatory value is worth,” Debono said, adding that the accused had a clean criminal record and had been living in Malta for nine years. Furthermore, he had two children from his Maltese girlfriend and had strong community ties to the island, submitted the lawyer.

“His partner has the right not to testify, she may not even be a competent witness due to a conflict in two dispositions of the law,” added Debono, pointing out that even if she were to be charged too, she would still not be a compellable witness.

The court had the tools available to allay the prosecution’s fears, he said. “We believe that the court can impose conditions to neutralise these fears, thereby protecting the rights of the accused and the interests of justice and creating an ideal balance.”

Inspector Mercieca objected on the grounds of the gravity of the offence and because the investigations are still going on apace. More people and properties are likely to be found, he said. “Our fears are real and at this stage we are asking that he not be released on bail, as when he was arrested, we already encountered difficulty in preserving the evidence, much more so if he is released on bail under any conditions.”

Debono argued that the police could have released the accused on police bail before arraigning as the investigations were still ongoing, suggesting that he had been charged prematurely. The ongoing investigation could end up pointing in a different direction than it was at this stage, he said.

Inspector Mercieca countered by saying that events in the past 48 hours, pointed at the accused and the efforts to tamper with evidence, and were crimes for which other people had also been arrested.

The court upheld the prosecution’s arguments and denied bail, saying that there were multiple risks because of the risk of tampering with evidence and also in view of further arrests. Investigations are still ongoing and new places tied to the accused are still being discovered, said the magistrate, remanding Russo in custody.