Prosecution given December deadline to finish exhibiting evidence in Porticello money laundering case

Florinda Sultana and Albert Buttigieg are accused of using restaurants to launder money linked to fuel smuggling

Albert Buttigieg (left) and Florinda Sultana
Albert Buttigieg (left) and Florinda Sultana

A court compiling evidence in the money laundering case against Florinda Sultana and Albert Buttigieg has given the prosecution a deadline to exhibit the remaining evidence, stating that exhibiting new evidence every sitting was undermining the judicial process itself.

Sultana and Buttigieg are accused of using restaurants to launder money linked to fuel smuggling.
They were involved in a number of companies operating the Porticello – formerly Scoglitti – restaurant at Valletta and Capo Mulini at Marsaxlokk. Both restaurants are alleged to be involved in laundering money linked to oil smuggling.

The pair had been the subjects of search warrants and were arrested in 2021 as part of a large-scale police anti-smuggling operation which led to the arraignments of ex-footballers Darren Debono and Jeffrey Chetcuti, together with auditor Chris Baldacchino and fuel trader Gordon Debono.

The compilation of evidence against them has been stuck in the doldrums for some time, with the police investigation seemingly continuing in parallel with the proceedings in court, rather than before.

When the case resumed this morning, the court was informed by the prosecution that a number of documents seized by the police had not yet been exhibited.

But after watching the evidence arrive in dribs and drabs for more than two years, presiding magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech drew a line in the sand. She had had enough, she said.

The court made it clear to the prosecution that the officer who seized this new evidence must, under oath, indicate the relevance of every document that is being exhibited, adding that in that officer’s testimony he is expected to indicate specifically the evidence’s connection with the specific charge.

Observing that the defendants had been charged in April 2021 and that new evidence was still being exhibited, the court’s instructions to the prosecution were emphatic. “Get your house in order and pull your socks up.”

Defence lawyer Stefano Filletti pointed out that the way the investigation was being conducted meant that the defendants did not have full disclosure of the evidence against them.

“This court is inundated,” said the magistrate. “We cannot keep on going on in this piecemeal fashion. It is not acceptable that the prosecution is still exhibiting documents after a year and a half.” 

Magistrate Frendo Dimech reminded the prosecutors that although the case dated back to April 2021, the relevant searches had taken place between October and November 2020. “Two years ago! Enough, I’ve had it.”

“It is shameful and undoubtedly unjustifiable that one expects the court to give further time so that proceedings can continue at this pace, which is certainly not one that criminal proceedings should be conducted.”

The court ordered that all of the remaining evidence, bar the results of the rogatory letters sent abroad, be exhibited not later than the end of November. “All the evidence must be submitted by the end of November. I am making myself clear.”

The magistrate reminded the lawyers that there was a public expectation that prosecutions are concluded within a reasonable time.

Lawyer Antoine Agius Bonnici from the Office of the Attorney General replied that the prosecution didn’t want to rush the investigation, but was given short shrift by the magistrate. “Don’t talk to me about rushing, the time for rushing is over, now it is delayed and the defence has not yet been given disclosure.”

Agius Bonnici objected to this statement, arguing that the court was making it sound as if nothing had been done in the past two years. “There was a period where there was a large influx of cases, which were allocated to a small pool of people,” said the lawyer, diplomatically.

“There was a rush to arraign people, you mean,” Frendo Dimech replied, “and there is responsibility to be borne for this, and not by you, as you have done exemplary work.

The end result of this, the magistrate explained, is that everyone involved is faced with a large volume of documents with limited time to examine them. “The evidence must be collected and examined before pressing charges,” insisted the magistrate, repeating a criticism she has often made in other proceedings relating to money laundering.

“This is not a shortcoming on the part of the AG, or the inspector,” the court went on, “but we cannot have a situation where a cable TV receipt is seized.”

“More than just being seized, the problem is it being exhibited in the acts of the case,” Agius Bonnici explained.

The court said it would adjourn the case until December for this exercise to be carried out.

Inspector Joseph Xerri protested that the documents had been gathered, shown to the accused during interrogation, sorted and those deemed irrelevant put aside. This process took time, he said, adding “I cannot let this decree criticising the police stand uncontested.”

The magistrate was not swayed by this argument, however, saying that it was “in everyone’s interest not to inundate the court with documents.”

“For these people to have justice, there must be an end in sight,” admonished Frendo Dimech. “The last useful sitting was held before March, the last witness was heard in December 2021!”

Agius Bonnici argued that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg had ruled that four to five years was a “reasonable time to decide money laundering cases.”

“But with the appeal and any constitutional cases,” the court immediately shot back.

“It is unacceptable that a compilation of evidence drags on for more than a year and a half. Don’t let anyone else allow this case to be protracted further.”