Judge orders police investigation into fuel smuggling by fisherman

Fisherman Paul Piscopo to be investigated on fuel smuggling after Judge refuses bid to have Customs return seized vessel 

Paul Piscopo requested that Customs release his fishing boat, but instead the Court called on the Commissioner of Police to start criminal investigations into fuel smuggling
Paul Piscopo requested that Customs release his fishing boat, but instead the Court called on the Commissioner of Police to start criminal investigations into fuel smuggling

A court has ordered a police investigation into the smuggling of fuel by a fishing operator, after an unsuccessful bid for the release of his boat when it was seized by Customs.

Paul Piscopo, owner of Dimitra Fishing Company, had his boat Dimitra seized in July 2013 by Customs officers. The operation led to the seizure of four vessels with undeclared diesel on board. Piscopo’s boat alone carried 34,600 litres of diesel, 8,000 litres of which were smuggled.

The Dimitra’s vessel monitoring system had been switched off when the Armed Forces intercepted the approaching vessel some 24 nautical miles off Delimara.

But Piscopo later filed a judicial protest, claiming he had been treated differently from other companies whose vessels were also seized over undeclared fuel. Piscopo said that Customs had also found 28,000 litres of smuggled diesel aboard the MV Padre Pio, 110,000 litres aboard the MV Golden Dawn, and 150,000 litres on the MV Silver King. The latter ship later told this newspaper it had presented invoices showing the diesel was purchased legally.

Piscopo insisted that the three ships had settled on an administrative agreement, having excise duty on the contraband fuel and then released from Customs. The Dimitria was refused the same opportunity.

But Mr Justice Silvio Meli said that the “resultant indications was that the company was involved in the contraband of petroleum products through the use of fishing vessels.”

“The criminal nature is evident by the fact that the vessel monitoring system was deliberately switched off by the captain of the boat,” Mr Justice Meli said, adding that the boat had its fishing paraphernalia removed, and instead had a floor meter used for the calculation of the fuel weight.

“The interception, arrest and escort of the ship was the result of a reasonably serious suspicion of crime… since this is an illegal operation with the possibility of a crime having been committed, this Court sends a copy of its decision to the Commissioner of Police so that all criminal steps are taken against the people in question.”

Piscopo is the owner of various companies, namely Mediterranean Samac Ltd, Sunoil Management Co Ltd and Dimitra Fishing Co Ltd.

Previous smuggling charges

Months before the seizure of the Dimitra, Paul Piscopo’s son Matthew was arrested by Libyan authorities on charges of trying to smuggle large volumes of diesel into Malta. He was acquitted six months later.

In March 2013, an Egyptian boat, Fahd al-Islam, was stopped by the Libyan coastguard three miles off the coast in the northwestern region of Zuara. Thirteen crew members, including Piscopo, the only Maltese on board, were arrested after 11,000 litres of diesel were found on the vessel. The fuel was confiscated.

A month later on 8 April, the Panamanian-registered Levante was stopped in Libyan waters and diverted to Tripoli. It was allegedly carrying 400 tonnes of contraband diesel. Marsaskala resident Kevin McManus and seven Egyptians were arrested.

McManus was arrested in Libya, according to the Libyan Herald on charges of smuggling fuel, but he was released some time in 2014. Documents found aboard indicated that the Levante was involved in four previous fuel-running trips.

At Libyan petrol stations, the pump price for 400 tonnes of diesel would be around €36,000, while in Malta it could cost around €620,000.