Customs official accused of accepting sugary drink as bribe

Retired customs official was charged with having accepted bribes from Libyan in the form of an unpalatably sweet drink – to allow him access to a restricted area of the airport cargo section in 2013

A puzzling case of alleged bribery has begun to be heard by the courts today.

Retired customs official Philip Grech, 61, from Zebbug, appeared before magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, charged with having accepted bribes from Libyan - in the form of an unpalatably sweet drink – to allow him access to a restricted area of the airport cargo section in 2013.

Prosecuting police Inspector Jonathan Ferris told the court how on the 25 September 2013, he had been informed that a Libyan person had been observed being granted access by customs officials to enter a restricted area of the airport housing a luggage conveyor belt.

The man, Jamal Mesdah Basher Al Gazale, was captured on CCTV in the act of taking several boxes from the conveyor belt. He was not challenged by customs officers on duty.

Ferris explained that the door to the room could not be opened from the outside, but had to be opened from the inside by means of a sensor.

The footage showed that Al Gazale was accompanied by a customs official, who the inspector said can be seen assisting the Libyan in pushing a trolley carrying the items. He calculated 12 boxes to have been loaded on the trolley. However, although the conveyor belt showed 12, Al Gazale is then seen leaving the customs zone with 11. Philip Grech had been the customs official on duty that day, the inspector said.

The missing box had been found in Grech’s office, said the inspector, adding that the accused had told him the sugary drinks tasted awful and were used during Ramadan to supplement calorific intake. He had allegedly told the inspector that he had accepted them as a payment of a courtesy by Al Gazale, for allowing him to access the area.

One bright red can of the beverage, taken from the seized box, was shown to the court.

Public officials are prohibited from accepting gifts in the course of their duties, said the Inspector, also pointing out that when questioned, the Libyan had told the police that he had known Grech for many years.

Al Gazale had told investigators that he had been waiting for the arrival of 10 cases of drinks from Tripoli. At the airport he had called Grech, who had told him that he was just behind the door and that he would allow him in the area, the inspector said. Al Gazale claimed that he had taken two boxes, but the inspector explained that he had only recovered one from the customs official's desk.

Lawyer Stefano Filletti, appearing for Grech, cross-examined the inspector, asking about the courtesy allegation, pointing out it did not emerge from any of the statements released by the accused. He had explained this to the inspector informally, replied Ferris, but had chosen not to answer when the statement was taken. “So you do not have this acceptance in writing?” repeated the lawyer. He did not.

Filletti moved on to the issue surrounding the access to the restricted area. Ferris explained that from what he had been told by the customs officials to whom he had spoken, this was not normally permitted.

The person accompanying the boxes had met Al Gazale at the arrivals hall and had told him to go in to the cargo and so the accused was contacted and allegedly asked for two boxes to be left behind, in return, he said.

The Libyan denied receiving payment in any form from the accused, added the inspector, prompting the lawyer to ask how, then, had the transaction taken place. Ferris replied that Al Gazale had taken two boxes to the accused’s office and left them there. Contrary to normal procedure, no receipt was given for the items withheld, and the box had been opened. The normal procedure for sampling was not followed in this case.

The prosecution could not confirm whether the two other eyewitnesses had been questioned.

He asked whether the police had checked the market value of the items, suggested that they were sold in lots of 24 for a pittance. The Inspector said he had not, arguing that the pecuniary value was not relevant to the charges.

“What did the accused gain, here then?” Filletti asked. “He gained satisfaction that he obtained something as a payment for a favour,” replied the Inspector.

“But if he took this as a payment, why did he leave it there for a week for the rest of the customs officials?”

Grech had allegedly told the police that he had tasted the drink and found it to be so sickeningly sweet that he did not care to take any more, the court was told.

“Did you see the accused leaving with any boxes, or just Al Gazale?” asked the lawyer, saying the product was common in Malta and used by Muslims to supplement their diets during Ramadan.

“If a person, knowing he committed a crime, accepted bribes, would he then leave the proceeds lying around in plain sight? Did no other official ask him what the box was there for?” asked Filletti, questioning how a box without a reference number or paper trail did not raise suspicion as a security risk in an airport. The Magistrate added that even an unattended suitcase would cause alarm.

Filletti posited that the box had been left there by mistake and the accused had simply picked it up and placed it on the official’s desk.

“This is all derived from a subjective conversation between yourself and the accused,” said the lawyer, “You do not have any concrete evidence.”

On the request of the prosecution, the court appointed a technical expert to extract stills from the CCTV footage, which will be exhibited during the next sitting.

The case continues in March.