Fisher claims rights breach over seized ship carrying contraband diesel

Customs officials discovered 34,600 litres of diesel on board, 8,000 litres of which had not been declared

Paul Piscopo
Paul Piscopo

Businessman Paul Piscopo and his wife Alexandra have filed a human rights case against the Director General of Customs and the State Advocate, over the confiscation of one of their fishing vessels over suspicions of fuel smuggling, which however, never translated into criminal charges. 

The ship’s crew had been charged but were subsequently acquitted.

Paul Piscopo, the owner of Dimitra Fishing Company, Mediterranean Samac Ltd and Sunoil Management Co Ltd, is also the current Secretary General of the fishermen’s cooperative, known as Għaqda Koperattiva tas-Sajd.

The note of seizure for the vessel Dimitra had originally been issued by customs in July 2013, after officials boarded the ship in Maltese territorial waters and discovered 34,600 litres of diesel on board, 8000 litres of which had not been declared. More undeclared fuel was discovered in the ship’s hold, after it docked in the Grand Harbour.

However, the Piscopos were never charged with any criminal offence in connection with the vessel’s seizure. As owners of the Dimitra, Piscopo and his wife had subsequently filed court proceedings requesting the release of the vessel and its cargo. This request was objected to by the customs Director General who had argued that the fuel had been found on board the ship, stored in plastic tanks in suspicious circumstances.

There were indications that it was being used to regularly smuggle fuel without paying VAT and duty on it, the court was told.

At the time of its interception by the AFM, the vessel’s monitoring system (VMS) had been switched off at sea, there was no fishing equipment on board and its fishing licence had expired, the court had been told.  What AFM personnel did find were eight 1,000 litre plastic tanks full of fuel for which the ship’s captain and crew had no explanation.

In the Constitutional application filed today and signed by lawyers Jose Herrera and David Camilleri, the couple point out that they had made several previous unsuccessful attempts to contest the seizure of the vessel. Their request had first been denied by the First Hall of the Civil Court in October 2017 and the refusal subsequently confirmed on appeal in June 2021.

The lawyers argue that a note of seizure is simply a temporary procedure and while it is being contested in court, the objects subject to it cannot be confiscated by the Government.” Confiscation is a form of punishment which can only be imposed by a court of criminal jurisdiction,” stated the lawyers, “which is why, when a note of seizure is issued, criminal proceedings are always also initiated against the person served with the note…The confiscation or otherwise is determined in the final judgement in those criminal proceedings.”

It was pointed out that in another case filed by the Piscopos over the seizure of another vessel, in March 2021 the Court of Appeal had reached a conclusion that was diametrically opposed to its position regarding the Dimitra. In that case, the lawyers said, the court had concluded that once the plaintiff had been cleared of criminal charges, the court could not but revoke the note of seizure.

“This reasoning ought to apply much more in the current circumstances, where the plaintiff, despite an investigation, the Police and Customs Officials had not felt that there was a basis for him to be criminally charged…”

The lawyers argued that the Piscopos had effectively been subjected to the deprivation of enjoyment of their property, as well as a breach of their right to a fair hearing, because they were being punished without undergoing trial.

The lawyer called upon the court to declare a breach of the plaintiffs’ rights as safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights and the Constitution and to issue orders to ensure the implementation of their fundamental rights, “amongst them an order to release the vessel Dimitra and liquidate the compensation due to the plaintiff due to the length of time that this ship has been confiscated.”