Cigarette-smuggling 'amateur fishermen' fined €174,000 each

The men were observed loading boxes from another ship and were caught with no provisions or fishing equipment onboard

(File Photo)
(File Photo)

Magistrate Joe Mifsud has praised the recent crackdown by Customs authorities on cigarette smuggling, calling it “an abuse which ultimately affected society at large since the sums evaded by way of unpaid duty and taxes meant less resources to be spent on crucial sectors like health, education and welfare.”

The declaration came as the court handed two “amateur fishermen” a suspended sentence and a considerable fine for attempting to smuggle some 390,000 cigarettes into Malta in an operation conducted 35 nautical miles at sea.

Vincent Xuereb, 44, from Ghajsielem, and Noel Vella, 36, from Rabat, Gozo, were arrested in February 2013 after an AFM air wing patrol craft had observed their vessel performing suspicious maneuvers out at sea.

The authorities, tipped off about possible drugs or cigarettes smuggling activity involving the two accused, had been observing the Sea Lioness, a fishing vessel registered in the name of a third party.

It was around 8:30am one February morning that an AFM aircraft patrolling the area spotted the MV Golden Dawn, a vessel notorious for its history of illegal operations at sea.

The aircraft’s crew observed and filmed the smaller Sea Lioness as it went alongside the Golden Dawn, and loaded a large number of boxes from the larger vessel.

With the exchange complete, the larger boat headed out to the open seas, while the Sea Lioness turned back towards Malta.

At that point the AFM moved in and intercepted the smaller vessel and arrested the two crewmen on board. The vessel was escorted to Marfa, where a search conducted by customs officials and police led to the discovery of the contraband cargo hidden inside its hold.

The value of the ‘Business Royals’ cigarettes packed in 39 boxes and 7 cartons, totaled €11,310, with unpaid excise duty amounting to €51,480, import duty amounting to €6,514.56 and VAT totaling €12,474.82.
The men had claimed to have been out looking for fishing grounds, but this explanation did not wash with magistrate Joseph Mifsud, presiding the Court of Magistrates in Gozo.

Why would two amateur fishermen travel some 35 miles out to sea and yet not attempt any fishing whatsoever, asked the court, pointing out that no fishing equipment was found on board.

The men had carried no food or provisions on the trip, nor had they notified the local authorities that they were leaving Maltese territorial waters.

Ruling that the version of the accused was not credible, the court found the men guilty and handed each of them an 18-month jail term suspended for 2 years. The accused were also fined €173,983.68 each, of which €57,994 was to be handed over to the Customs Department.

The court ordered the confiscation of all the merchandise together with a further sum of €23,000 instead of the confiscating the vessel.

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