Neville Gafà: Muscat’s loyal servant and the secret Libya migration deal

Last year news reports suggested Malta had entered into a secret pact with Libya to stymie migration flows and the man acting as go-between was Neville Gafa. The former OPM official tells KURT SANSONE his story 

Loyal servant: Gafà has worked with the Muscat administration as an unofficial envoy to Libya, and has sworn loyalty to Joseph Muscat’s former chief-of-staff Keith Schembri
Loyal servant: Gafà has worked with the Muscat administration as an unofficial envoy to Libya, and has sworn loyalty to Joseph Muscat’s former chief-of-staff Keith Schembri

Neville Gafà resigned his government job last month, shortly after Robert Abela was sworn in as Prime Minister.

A Labour Party activist, Gafà had been employed as a person of trust with the Office of the Prime Minister by Joseph Muscat.

Otherwise unknown, Gafà courted controversy when he was implicated in a medical visas racket involving Libyan patients four years ago, and subsequently for having visited Libya in a secret mission as the Maltese government’s special envoy.

Gafà finally spoke about his job within government last week when he testified in the public inquiry delving into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Under oath, Gafà confirmed that he had been acting as the Maltese government’s go-between in dealings with the Libyan authorities on migration issues.

He reiterates that line when I meet him for a coffee in Paceville, a day after he testified in the inquiry.

Gafà confirms that in July 2018 he was asked by the Office of the Prime Minister whether he could help on the migration issue.

“At the time, the attacks on Tripoli intensified and militias retreated from the coastal areas to move to the frontlines of war and this prompted an increase in migrant departures, particularly from the port cities of Zawijah and Khoms,” Gafà tells me.

The situation was exacerbated by the election in Italy of the hard-liner Matteo Salvini, who adopted a closed ports policy that saw Malta and Italy at loggerheads over which country should be taking in rescued migrants.

Direct contacts with Libyan coastguard

Gafà says the OPM asked him to use his contacts in Libya to establish a direct line with the authorities there, particularly the Libyan coastguard.

He lifts the lid on what has, until now, been an unconfirmed report of a secret arrangement between Malta and Libya to have migrants intercepted inside Libyan waters.

“I used to receive information of boats departing from Libya and their coordinates from the Armed Forces of Malta and would relay this directly to the Libyan coastguard. My work was to cover Libyan waters only. The moment a boat moved out of Libyan waters it no longer remained my remit,” Gafà explains.

He says that he used to communicate with his contacts in the Libyan coastguard and if the situation remained unresolved, he would up the ante by contacting the Libyan interior ministry.

“These were operations that would last for hours on end. I would be calling every 15 minutes, relaying new coordinates and tapping different contacts in the Libyan coastguard. We did not have red carpet treatment and it took a lot of patience and many hours of convincing,” Gafà says.

Gafà says that between July 2018 and January 2019 around 53 migrant boats were prevented from reaching Malta’s SAR in this way.

He adds that the situation used to get more complicated when several migrant boats would have departed at the same time and the Italians would also be pressuring the Libyan coastguard to intervene before boats reached their search and rescue area (SAR).

Gafà was not a diplomat and yet he was tasked to maintain this covert communication channel. I ask him why he and not the AFM got involved with the Libyan coastguard.

He smiles: “I don’t know how to answer you on the AFM. I have good relations with the Libyans and my word counts. There is a cultural attitude where trust has to be earned and once it is, they will always respect you.”

Averting a ‘national crisis’

Gafà is unfazed by the suggestion that the Maltese government’s decision that he was implementing ran counter to what the United Nations was saying about Libya not being a safe country.

The UN advocates against the return of migrants to Libya. Human rights organisations have also documented many instances of migrant abuse inside Libyan detention centres. Malta’s efforts disregarded these warnings.

Gafà gives me a legalistic answer. “This wasn’t a pushback. All the interceptions happened inside Libyan territory by Libyan assets. We never sent back a boat that would have crossed into Maltese SAR.”

In many ways, Malta’s unofficial policy was in line with that of the EU, which advocated helping the Libyan coastguard through training and provision of assets to enable the ‘rescue’ of migrants inside Libyan waters.

But why did it have to be him and not the ambassador, a diplomat or ministers, to broker such an arrangement, I ask.

“I don’t know. I do not question my superiors, I only obey orders. I was asked to help and that is what I did. Could there have been reluctance by diplomats and ministers to go to Libya? I don’t know. What I know for sure is that we would have had a national crisis had this unofficial channel not existed,” Gafà says.

The comfort of Kenneth Camilleri

He explains that maintaining contacts in Libya required him to travel often to the country to meet the people in authority. “What I did was risky but I had to go up and meet them because that is how you maintain good relations in Libya. There has to be personal contact for people to trust you,” he insists.

On every trip, he took Kenneth Camilleri with him. Camilleri was part of the Prime Minister’s security detail and has been mentioned in court proceedings linked to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

“I used to ask Kenneth whether he was willing to come with me because his presence gave me comfort. After all, we were not visiting Ibiza,” Gafà says.

I suggest that the Libyans could not have done this simply as a favour for Malta. They would have asked for something. What was Malta offering them?

Malta had treated Libyan patients

Gafà shrugs off the question and answers calmly. “Malta offered them nothing because Malta had already helped out in June 2014 when Mitiga airport was attacked and many people were injured,” he says.

Gafà says that at the time, Malta had brought over many injured Libyans for treatment at Mater Dei Hospital and Saint James Hospital.

He says that between June and December 2014, Libyan patients, some of them with gunshot injuries, were brought over for treatment by air ambulance that was paid for by the Libyan authorities.

“I was responsible for at least 153 evacuations of Libyan patients that required urgent treatment. Malta’s help was noted by the Libyans and they remained thankful for it,” he says.

Medical visas racket: ‘I was investigated’

In his first major controversy, Gafà faced accusations that he had extorted money from Libyans for the issuance of medical visas. The former OPM official denies the allegations.

“I was never accused by the Libyan government or Libyan authorities of any abuse. I have travelled to Libya many times and continue to do so. I was never denied a visa or stopped from travelling because of some accusations…”

I cut him short and remind him that he had a diplomatic passport, which could have possibly afforded him immunity.

“Although I had a diplomatic passport, I only used it once, last summer, when I travelled to Libya with the Maltese ambassador. I always used my personal passport and never had any problem,” Gafà replies.

He also shuns claims that he benefitted from impunity, saying that police had interrogated him for many hours when the allegations surfaced.

“I also had my office searched. They lifted all papers, including sticky notes, and yet I was never charged. There was no impunity as some want to suggest,” Gafà says.

He insists the accusation of wrongdoing only came from one person who is not even Libyan.

Gafà says the Libyan embassy in Malta had filed a police report about this person, accusing him of falsifying documents. “To my knowledge, the police have yet to proceed on the report,” he adds.

Gafà insists it was never his job to authorise the issuance of visas. The Libyan patients, accompanied by one relative, would be granted a visa upon arrival in Malta.

“Patients would be given a visa without charge, which was part of an arrangement we found in place from the Gonzi administration and which we continued to honour. But the relative would pay €66 and be issued a visa,” Gafà explains.

That secret meeting with a Libyan warlord

I raise another controversy Gafà was involved in when media reports last December revealed that he held a meeting with Libyan warlord Haithem Tajouri.

Tajouri, who leads the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, was subjected to UN sanctions, following accusations of human rights violations.

Gafà had told Times of Malta that he “bumped into” Tajouri while in Tripoli but no official explanation of the meeting, or the Libya visit, was ever given.

He tells me that the meeting with Tajouri was for the purposes of “national security”. Gafà refuses to elaborate but insists Tajouri also had meetings with officials from other countries.

Neville Gafá meeting Libyan warlord Haithem Tajouri
Neville Gafá meeting Libyan warlord Haithem Tajouri

“I met Mr Tajouri more than once, just like the French and Italian authorities met him. I also met other militia leaders. Tajouri has one of the largest militias… these militias control the territory in Libya and it is important to maintain contact with them,” he says.

I point out that Tajouri was subjected to UN sanctions, which would have put Malta in an embarrassing position.

“That is true but the Italians and the French met him, why not Malta? Sanctions should apply to all or to none. Let’s face it, the US ambassador recently met General Haftar, who is accused of being a war criminal,” Gafà says.

Evacuation of Maltese injured by gunshot

I ask him whether his job as a fixer of sorts with Libya was worth it.

“It was worth it for the country. It wasn’t for me and I paid the price,” he replies in his usual calm tone.

He recounts several instances when he was involved in the evacuation of Maltese from Libya, which was possible because of his contacts.

One case involved a Maltese national who took a gunshot to the head. The foreign ministry, he says, had been trying for five hours to get him out of Libya but they could not trace the hospital he was in.

“The ministry contacted me for help and in four hours, I located the man and he was back in Malta on the operating table at Mater Dei. He survived. That is the work I did,” he says.

Gafà says there were countless other evacuations involving Maltese families, including Bishop George Bugeja, whom he twice helped to leave Tripoli.

“To this day, I continue to check on Maltese families who live in Libya to see if they are OK,” Gafà says.

Recovering payments owed

I ask him whether the Libyans expected Malta to close an eye on illegal arms trading or possibly oil smuggling.

“No. What I did had absolutely nothing to with oil or anything else. I dealt with migration issues and at a later stage was involved in trying to retrieve payments owed to Mater Dei Hospital and Saint James Hospital from the Libyan government,” Gafà replies.

He says that through his intervention, Mater Dei Hospital managed to recover €400,000 and Saint James Hospital recovered €625,000. There are another €1.5 million in outstanding payments, he adds.

“In July 2019, during the Libya visit with the Maltese ambassador, we also presented them with outstanding payments owed to Maltese companies,” Gafà says.

He adds that after his resignation last January all contact with the Maltese government was severed and he has not been spoken to or approached for help.

Gafà comes across as a loyal servant, who would do the job assigned to him with no questions asked. He insists he never did anything wrong and does not regret his actions.

But he does have one remorse: “I regret dragging my family into this because they suffered while I was subjected to all those accusations.”

No longer in government employ, he has now broken his silence to defend his name.