Darren Debono hearing in Catania on fuel smuggling racket starts this week

Former Malta footballer Darren Debono is under house arrest in Catania where he is waiting for a preliminary hearing on the evidence on a Libya-Italy fuel racket in which he is implicated

Darren Debono
Darren Debono

The former Malta international footballer Darren Debono will face a preliminary court hearing in Catania on 17 March, on charges of fuel smuggling that have landed him on an American trade blacklist.

Debono, arrested in October last year on the island of Lampedusa, is being held under domiciliary arrest in Catania.

He will face a preliminary court hearing before a ‘GUP’ judge, in a court hearing that is akin to a compilation of evidence sitting. The GUP is to decide whether the evidence is sufficient to take the case forward for hearing before another judge.

MaltaToday spoke to Debono’s lawyer in Catania, who said his client would release no comment after only weeks ago Debono and his businesses were blacklisted in a fresh round of sanctions by the US Treasury Department, aimed at blocking the illegal exportation of oil from Libya.

Debono was arrested in October following an investigation by Italian police into a Libyan-Italian racket where Libyan ‘smuggling king’ Fahmi Bin Khalifa supplied smuggled Libyan fuel through Debono’s ships, to an Italian merchant.

Debono is believed to have used his fleet of fishing vessels to transport the smuggled fuel out of Libya so that it could be sold in Italian ports. The crime syndicate included Maltese businessman Gordon Debono, who was arrested in Catania, and a Sicilian mafia associate, Nicola Orazio Romeo.

A report by investigative journalist Anne Marlowe had initially shed light on the ring, prompting a United Nations probe into Debono’s actions and the movements of his ships between Malta and Libya.

The recent US sanctions hit Darren Debono, Gordon Debono, Rodrick Grech and Terence Micallef in a list of six individuals, 24 companies and seven vessels. They included Debono’s vessels, the Maltese companies that acted as clearing houses for the oil transhipments, as well as his own Valletta restaurant, Scoglitti.

Operation Dirty Oil

Italian police investigators had been intercepting phone-calls from Darren Debono for two years in a bid to dismantle the €30-million fuel smuggling ring.

The restaurateur is suspected of having been the crucial link that made possible the transportation of smuggled Libyan oil to Italian markets, with the help of Gordon Debono to issue false invoices.

But after the smuggling ring was exposed in newspaper reports and the United Nations investigation, Debono found a brick wall to get his shipments validated by the Chamber of Commerce in Malta.

“We have to go to the United Nations,” Debono was heard telling an associate in one of the intercepted phone-calls. “They are just copying what some asshole journalist from the Wall Street Journal is writing.”

The investigators said Darren Debono and Gordon Debono would participate in “summits” in Italy with broker Marco Porta, and then meet Bin Khalifa in Libya.

In a bid to hide the illicit origin of the fuel being bunkered out at sea, Gordon Debono would use the company Petroplus Ltd to issue false invoices; while Darren Debono and Romeo would use the company Oceano Blu Trading Ltd, as well as other offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands, to hide the flow of money used to pay Bin Khalifa.

Once the fuel was bunkered at sea, and then acquired by Marco Porta’s Maxcom Bunker SpA in Italy, Porta would use false documentation issued by Petroplus, to hide the origin of the fuel – documents which were, possibly unknowingly, validated by the Libyan Maltese Chamber of Commerce.

Debono was also intercepted coordinating the movements of the ships involved in the bunkering of the Libyan oil, showing how he had a handle on the shipping movements carrying the smuggled fuel.

Another interception, this time of Marco Porta and a Maxcom employee, makes reference to Nicola Orazio Romeo’s connections to the Sicilian underworld. Romeo, linked to the Mafia clan of Santapaola-Ercolano, was revealed by the Panama Papers of having had offshore companies at the same San Gwann address as ADJ Trading, the firm in which both Debono and Bin Khalifa were once shareholders.

“Nicola is part of the real underworld, the one nobody touches,” Porta tells a colleague. “He’s always being tapped when he is in Sicily.”