Tempers flare in ‘Lilu King’ bail submissions in court

Libyan boxer’s defence tells court not enough evidence presented to sustain organised crime and money laundering charges against Mohammed Elmushraty • Accused to be indicted after request for bail is rejected by the court

Mohammed Ali Ahmed Elmushraty
Mohammed Ali Ahmed Elmushraty

Libyan boxer Mohammed Ali Ahmed Elmushraty’s request for bail was rejected by the court on Tuesday.

In decrees handed down late in the afternoon, the court rejected Elmushraty’s bail request and decreed that it had seen sufficient prima facie evidence to merit Elmushraty’s indictment.

The testimony heard so far indicates there was a case for him to answer, ruled the court.

“There was no doubt that the crime being dealt with was wider in scope and involved more individuals than those presently charged,” said the magistrate.

Quoting ECHR cases, the magistrate said that in cases involving organised crime, the risk of a released defendant could pressure or intimidate others was greater.

This could create an obstacle to the ongoing investigation, said the magistrate, also observing that Elmushraty is accused of having breached two sets of previously imposed bail conditions and that a witness had already been approached and told how to testify.

Besides this there was the real risk that Elmushraty would abscond, said the magistrate.

The court went on to observe that his refugee protection was presently revoked and for the time being Elmushraty could not be allowed to freely circulate in society for these reasons.

Although calm for the most part, proceedings on bail came unstuck over the course of the three hour sitting, with incrementally strident and simultaneous submissions from both sides, culminating in Elmushraty’s lawyer suggesting that the magistrate was discriminating against his client.

At the start of the sitting, defence lawyer Franco Debono informed the court that he had filed a note this morning regarding a possible extradition request from Libya. “The Libya allegation should be treated with great circumspection,” he submitted, pointing out that the North African country had been ravaged by civil war for the past 10 years and the respect for Elmushraty’s human rights could not be ensured there. Elmushraty had been granted refugee status in Malta, Debono pointed out, stressing the principle of non-refoulment and arguing that the defendant should not be returned to “likely torture and execution.”

He also declared that Elmushraty was “strenuously rebutting” the contents of a document exhibited yesterday by Inspector Robinson Mifsud, about the defendant being wanted to face murder and drug trafficking charges in Libya. Prosecutor Antoine Agius Bonnici argued that the compilation of evidence was not the correct forum to make such requests.

Sara Ezabe, from the International Protection Agency, said Elmushraty filed his asylum claim in October 2015, saying he had been tortured in prison for three years as his father had been a coroner in the former Gaddafi regime. His refugee status was renewed in 2018, remaining valid until 2022, but Elmushraty failed to renew it within 12 months of its lapse and so it was revoked on 26 May 2023.

Ezabe could not confirm Debono’s assertion that Elmushraty had filed another application for refugee status on 9 June, which was currently still pending. The witness said there was no record of this in his file, but would testify again at a later date after checking with the agency’s records.

A police officer stationed at St Julian’s testified knowing Elmushraty “from the gym” and seeing him socialising with friends in Paceville. He said he had not been paid for some €2,000 worth of repairs carried out on a car brought to him by Elmushraty.

A car dealer said Elmushraty had approached him to sell two cars earlier this year – a grey Mercedes E-class and a BMW X6 – for €40,000 and €20,000 respectively. Eventually he bought the Mercedes, registration number 1KING, for €35,000. After paying €5,000 in cash up front, he only noticed the car did not actually belong to Elmushraty when he found another man’s name on the loan documentation.

Another car dealer, said he was still owed €10,000 on repairs he carried out on a Range Rover belonging to the defendant, who had only paid a €5,000 deposit through a third party called A&I Catering Ltd.

Prima facie against Elmushraty

Franco Debono denounced the case against his client as a “fishing expedition par excellence”, saying he saw no evidence to support the money laundering charges. “Prima facie sets a very low bar for evidence and the prosecution has not even surpassed this hurdle,” he argued.

No drugs had been found, Debono added, with the “worst case scenario” being tax evasion, and that the lapse of the defendant’s refugee status was an administrative matter.

He also said it was dangerous to rely on documents originating in Libya. “I think this is very worrying,” Debono said. “God forbid we accept evidence from a country which wants to torture him.”

“The prosecution is very far away from proving its case. Drugs? Nothing. Money laundering –

 are we going to start charging people with money laundering over tax issues? Nothing had emerged to support the charge of organised crime either.”

Replying to the defence, prosecutor Antoine Agius Bonnici said there was a contradiction in Debono’s submissions. “On one hand he is saying how low the bar is, and on the other he is expecting the prosecution to prove their case before prima facie is given.”

He said the investigation was still ongoing and civilian witnesses were still being spoken to. “The evidence is weak because we aren’t required to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt at this stage,” he said.

He accused Elmushraty of having no source of income while living an extravagant lifestyle, spending around €4,000 a month. “These all show the unexplained wealth and criminal activity charges were proven to a prima facie level.”

The court had been shown evidence from Interpol about investigations carried out in Libya, to demonstrate to the court that there was evidence in other jurisdictions which the prosecution was currently trying to obtain.

Organised crime is not limited to drug possession, said the prosecutor. “Here we have a criminal organisation. There is a structure. We aren’t only talking about the defendant. This is why we brought a witness to testify about the surveillance operation. This was intended to show the defendant’s connection to persons involved in organised crime.”

He said Elmushraty’s business partner was a well-known drug trafficker, and had been charged with that offence in the past, Agius Bonnici said. “In organised crime, the top figure, the ringleader, never appears. He’s like a ghost.”

In his counter arguments, Debono accused the prosecution of using “two weights and two measures” in dealing with his client. “When you arraign people, the investigation should be complete. This exception is becoming the rule. Just because prima facie is a low level it doesn’t mean you can only bring the lamest evidence during the first month,” reminding the prosecution that it was obliged to disclose all the evidence it had in hand from day one.

Bail submissions

The defence provided an address where Elmushraty would reside if granted bail and pointed out that he had returned from abroad of his own free will. Debono reiterated his call for the introduction of electronic tagging. “This is a measure that has been used by other countries for decades and which creates a balance between the rights of the accused and the interests of the State.”

But Agius Bonnici said Elmushraty had been granted bail in previous cases and had gone abroad in spite of his bail conditions, even posting videos of this breach, said the prosecutor, concluding that it was unlikely that he would obey bail conditions this time.

“A witness in this case has already been suborned,” he added “so the risk is a real one.”

Debono invited the court to “keep in mind that the law is equal for everyone.”

During the sitting, Debono called for the setting up of a third tier of review like the Cassazione in Italy and France which ensures uniformity of judgments and decrees. He said such a third tier would ensure that the principle written in all Italian courts ‘La Legge e uguale per tutti’ is further enhanced.

“It is the same for Adrian Hillman and Ryan Schembri, and the same for Elmushraty,” he needled. Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, who had dealt with both of those cases, informed the lawyer that the court would not be influenced by this comparison.

An unpleasant exchange between Debono and the magistrate ensued. “So I don’t have the right to mention cases decided by these courts, which were reported publicly?” asked the lawyer.

“If you are trying to imply that this court is not applying the law equally, I can assure you that it abides by the law,” the magistrate snapped back.

Frendo Dimech explained that in the case against Ryan Schembri, bail had only been granted eight months into the proceedings, but Debono insisted this did not change the fact that bail was still granted to a person who had absconded from Malta and had to be brought back through a European Arrest Warrant.

Agius Bonnici added that Adrian Hillman’s arraignment came after a four-year inquiry with 24 boxes of evidence exhibited.

This was irrelevant, said Debono. “He knew he was under investigation and he didn’t return.”

Police Inspectors Mark Anthony Mercieca, Alfredo Mangion and Tomjoe Farrugia are prosecuting. Prosecutors Antoine Agius Bonnici and Dejan Darmanin represented the Office of the Attorney General in the prosecution of Mohamed Ali Ahmed Elmushraty.

Lawyers Franco Debono, Marion Camilleri and Francesca Zarb are defence counsel to the defendants.