Pakistani restaurateur withheld passports but is cleared of human trafficking

Restaurateur’s assets frozen for 12 years throughout human trafficking case in which Court discounted evidence of victim whose passport was withheld by employer

A court has acquitted a man of charges of human trafficking and employing vulnerable workers under precarious work conditions, lifting a freezing order he had been under for 11 years.

Zia Ul Noor had been charged in 2011 by inspector – now Commissioner of Police – Angelo Gafá of human trafficking, specifically using violence to compel two men, one from Pakistan and the other from Nepal, to do his bidding.

Gafà had received the report from the General Consul of Pakistan and a certain Haroon Majeed Mughal, where the latter reported the allegations against the accused. Mughal was working in Pakistan as a waiter when in 2007 his former manager approached him about work in Noor’s Indian restaurant in Malta.

He was asked to pay €2,000 to cover his travel and visa expenses.

Mughal alleged that after working for two months, Noor seized his passport and did not pay him his wages, claiming to have had spent €15,000 on his visa and demanding another €13,000 to pay off his “debt” or else receive a reduced salary.

The man claimed the accused had “good connections” with the Immigration Department, namely former inspector, now superintendent Mario Haber, and that he could have him deported.

Another illegally-employed Nepalese worker named by Mughal had also confirmed to Gafà that he would often see Insp. Haber and a police constable dining at restaurants owned by the accused.

The police officers in turn denied the allegations strongly, but confirmed they knew the accused and that they dine in his restaurants, Gafà had told the court. In court Haber denied having eaten in Noor’s restaurants for free, confirming he knew him as an employer who frequently applied for visas and work permits.

Former employee Haroon Mughal also testified in court, recalling being paid just €260 a month instead of the promised €760, and that all his documents had been taken from him upon arrival in Malta. He reaffirmed that Noor would threaten him with deportation if he did not work for him.

Mughal left the job after 11 months and returned to Pakistan in 2009, his return flight having been deducted from his wages.

He returned to Malta in 2010 to claim asylum, but at the airport found the accused, with his brother and nephew waiting for him. They took his luggage and passport, and forced Mughal to work at the restaurant for a salary of €100-€270 a month to pay his debts. Mughal then sought assistance from the Jesuit Refugee Service, fearing he would be deported. He claimed he had inquired with Emirates Airways, and found there had been a ticket in his name.

Mughal was eventually granted refugee status.

The accused, Noor, strenuously denied Mughal’s claims, denying that Haber had ate for free, but that he came with his family to dine.

Noor also claimed Gafà had been rude to him, and levelled the same accusations of free dining against Gafà. “The first words he said were that he was going to charge me,” Noor testified in 2019. “I told him, ‘tell me what for and listen to [me] or tell me how are you going to charge me.’ He said, ‘I made my mind up.’”

Noor’s restaurant in Gzira is patronised by numerous MPs and local politicians, where he displays photos of his illustrious visitors on his social media pages.

Noor told the court he knew Gafà since 2005, as an infrequent diner often accompanied by dates. “On one occasion he escorted me to his house, I was in my car and he was driving a bike in front of me to show me the way to his house,” Noor said.

“When he started making these allegations I just laughed and told him, ‘You know me. I have not done anything of that.’ He told me ‘These... are making allegations and I am going to charge you again.’ He was abusing me, he was banging the table, he was shouting at me in front of his sergeant and another girl. I told him, ‘You do not need to do that. I am a respected businessman. I did not do anything wrong. Ask me all the questions you want. I will answer you’. He kept me for 11 hours. He stripped me naked down there and he tried to break my pride...”

Noor also claimed Gafà tried to “pressure” him into saying Haber had dined at his restaurant for free. “I told him ‘You can not fire the gun on my shoulder because he never asked me. He is a good friend but outside of his work.’”

In her judgement, Magistrate Claire Stafrace Zammit said Noor had confirmed holding on to his workers’ passports when they travelled to European countries, and that he would only return them if they returned to Pakistan.

The court however said that the only evidence against Noor was that tendered by Haroun Mughal, which did not “remotely indicate the commission of the crime of human trafficking by the accused.”

The elements of trafficking had been missing because Mughal had arrived in Malta through another unidentified person and started to work for the accused in his restaurants. He is quoted as saying that Noor paid for his bills, food and lodging and that he was free to move around and even had access to the internet and a computer.

But the Court said it was not convinced about his credibility.

“Although he complains of this treatment by the accused, then again he came back to Malta after returning to Pakistan. If he really was ill-treated and not paid sufficiently by the accused, why did Mughal come back to Malta, knowing that Malta is a small island and knowing that the accused would surely get to know of his return? His version of events is truly not convincing and this Court is of the opinion that Mughal had ulterior motives when he orchestrated the story.”

No evidence was exhibited to support allegations of bribery, saying the charges relating to employment offences were not borne out by the facts.

Clearing the accused of the other seven charges, the court found Noor guilty on his own admission of having withheld a passport belonging to one of his employees.

“The fact, as the accused stated in his testimony, that he used to keep their passports so that they do not leave for another European country is not a valid excuse at law and even if it was given back should they decide to go back to their country, the offence of exercising a pretended right was committed just the same. The eventual restitution of the document does not nullify this offence.”

The court conditionally discharged Noor for six months and revoked the freezing order that had been imposed over all of his assets in 2012. Lawyer Jason Grima represented Noor in the proceedings.