Updated | Debono claims US want info on ‘PM and Keith Schembri’ over Russian refuelling

Suspected fuel smuggler seeks injunction to prevent government from designating United Nations sanctions, says Malta is trying to appease United States • Government of Malta remains committed to sanctions if need be

Suspected fuel smuggler Darren Debono is trying to get a court injunction against UN sanctions from being designated against him
Suspected fuel smuggler Darren Debono is trying to get a court injunction against UN sanctions from being designated against him

The suspected fuel smuggler Darren Debono, currently facing charges in an Italian court in Catania, has alleged in court that officials from the United States embassy asked him for information about Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief of staff Keith Schembri, in exchange for lifting US sanctions on him.

Debono’s lawyer Victor Bugeja claimed in court on Wednesday that US embassy officials told Debono they wanted information on the provision of fuel to Russian ships, in order to lift sanctions against Debono and his businesses.

“Do you remember those two Russian ships that wanted to dock in Malta and that Malta didn’t allow to refuel? They told him to confirm whether the Prime Minister and the government took them outside territorial waters and whether he gave them fuel himself. They insisted on being given information and asked for information about the Prime Minister and Keith Schembri. He said, ‘no because he is my Prime Minister and I am not a spy’,” Bugeja said.

The claim was made in court in a case in which Debono is requesting an injunction on attempts by the Maltese government to designate United Nations sanctions against him. The court will decree on whether to uphold the request next week.

Debono is facing charges in Italy after having been arrested in September 2017 for his involvement in an oil smuggling ring between Libya and Italy. Since then, his businesses have been hit by OFAC sanctions, and he has petitioned the US embassy in Malta to have the sanctions lifted.

His lawyer insisted Debono was a fisherman who never made any transfers of oil outside territorial waters, because he does not own fuel barges. He also said that Debono was asked by the Americans to spy on the Maltese government when queired about wether government had supplied fuel to Russian warships, and that he had refused. “He refused to answer these questions.”

Bugeja argued that further sanctions against his client would be “catastrophic” for him.

Bugeja said the American demands were made in a meeting during which Debono asked for the OFAC sanctions to be lifted, in which he was also asked for information about human traffickers and drug smugglers.

Last month, MaltaToday reported that an attempt by Malta to have UN sanctions placed on the two men had hit a snag after Russia sought more details about the petition at the eleventh hour.

The technical hold, as it is referred to, requested more information about the sanctions from the Maltese government, a request which it acceded to instantly.

Both Darren Debono and Gordon Debono have filed injunctions against the government over the attempt at imposing sanctions.

Debono’s lawyer insisted throughout the sitting that the only reason Malta was attempting to have sanctions against his client was to appease the United States. “This is not the government, this is the Americans.”

He said the actions were disproportionate when considering the effect they would have on Debono’s life, insisting there would be no way of reversing the decision given that the United States had a veto in the UN Security Council and that the issue with Debono had now become “personal”.

He said his client was currently the subject of criminal proceedings in Italy, adding that there were no such procedures in Malta and that Debono had a clean criminal conduct.

“He is not, and has never been involved in, fraud or trafficking or anything of the sort. There have simply been allegations in the international and local media that have made this a high-profile case,” Bugeja said.

He also claimed that he had concrete evidence showing that the Maltese government’s decision to pursue UN sanctions against Debono had not been discussed at cabinet level.

Contrary to reports in the media, there was absolutely no change in direction in the potential issuance of sanctions against Gordon Debono and Darren Debono with the United Nations.

Debono fires back at US Chargés d’Affaires

Bugeja also insisted that the real reason sanctions were being pursued came out in an 18 July episode of current affairs programme Xtra Sajf, which included an interview with US Chargé d’Affaires Mark A. Schapiro.

In it, cases filed by Transport Malta by Debono, to stop the regulator from deregistering a number of ships he owns, was upheld.

Schapiro had said during the programme that Malta’s decision to present its first ever sanctions designation at the United Nations were an attempt to get around the decision.

“That would have solved these problems because the judge would have been obliged to enforce this, because Malta is a member of the United Nations. It was unfortunate that it didn’t go through.”

Judge Mark Chetcuti, who presided over Wednesday’s sitting was coincidentally also the judge that dismissed Transport Malta’s attempts “They want to tie your hands, yours specifically…but I am convinced of your integrity,” Bugeja told the judge.

Maltese government not presently pursuing sanctions

The court was presented with a sworn declaration from Foreign Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela in which it is stated that the Prime Minister and himself “at present do not intend to carry out any of the actions specified by [Debono] and for which he requesting a precautionary warrant of injunction”.

This, however, does not preclude any further action at UN level by the Maltese, or any other interested government seeking sanctions against actors suspected of fuel smuggling.

Lawyer Christian Scerri Falzon from the office of the Attorney General noted that procedures related to the application of sanctions against an individual were in and of themselves confidential. “It doesn’t make sense to go and tell someone that they are being investigated.”

He insisted that anything that might have been said through the media was not relevant to the case before the court, stressing that the facts relating to the veracity of statements made could not be established by the court.

The issue, he said, revolved around whether someone who had a suspicion that they were being investigated or would have sanctions issued against them has the right to try and stop it.

Moreover, he said that the courts had no jurisdiction to stop the UN from imposing sanctions. “This court cannot issue an injunction to stop a petition [at the UN] from moving forward. That would be the remit of an international court.”

He stressed that even if a petition to impose sanctions had been submitted - highlighting that at this stage there was no official documentation or proof indicating this was the case – its progress no longer depended on those who had submitted it.

“There is this assumption that if it was submitted that it came from Malta, but we can’t conclude this, we have no jurisdiction to know.”

He further noted that the UN Security Council was not an entity that would impose sanctions for no reason.

Regarding the impact of the sanctions, he said that it stood to reason that economic sanctions would have a detrimental effect on whoever they were imposed against, adding that if such an argument were to be accepted, then it would mean that one could never consider imposing such sanctions.

“With this reasoning if I get a suspicion that the police or the tax department are investigating me, then I can a warrant to stop the investigation,” he said.

Scerri Falzon said Malta’s reputation would also be at stake if attempts were made to derail the process, given that it had obligations towards the international community.

He said that the consequences were sanctions against an individual who had legal remedies that could be pursued if they were issued incorrectly, and the international community that could be deprived of a solution to the crisis in Libya.

Court can’t stop Malta lobbying Russia

Bugeja insisted that it was not true that the procedure was now out of Malta’s control. He said that both Abela and Schapiro had stated that Malta was awaiting questions from Russia which it would be replying.

He insisted that the court block Malta from lobbying the Russians to get behind the petition. The judge however noted that he had no power to stop states from discussing matters between themselves.

He said he would decree on the matter at a later date.

No change in government policy

The Maltese government issued an official statement after the court sitting, saying its declaration explained that the elements for the issuance of a warrant of prohibitory injunction did not subsist.

“This declaration does not imply that actions done in the past or actions that can be taken in the future could be changed. In today’s court proceedings another warrant of prohibitory injunction is being sought against the government by Darren Debono. The Office of the Attorney General during these proceedings explained that whether or not a petition for sanctions was presented in front of the United Nations Security Council is a matter of confidential nature. If such petition was presented, the Security Council of the United Nations had the power to accept or reject these sanctions. The Government of Malta could only abide with such decision.

“The Government of Malta remains committed to actions pursued in the past and future actions which may be taken if the situation calls for them. Malta will not refrain from taking action to enforce its laws or in the interest of peace and stability in the Mediterranean region or elsewhere.”