How smuggled Libyan oil brought by Debonos’ ships was stored in Malta: investigation

Swiss trader Kolmar used Malta petroleum tanks to take Libyan oil from ships operated by Darren and Gordon Debono, thanks to clearance from Customs

Still facing charges for fuel smuggling in Syracuse: Darren Debono, Gordon Debono and Fahmi Bin Khalifa; the Americans think they know more about Mediterranean smuggling trade
Still facing charges for fuel smuggling in Syracuse: Darren Debono, Gordon Debono and Fahmi Bin Khalifa; the Americans think they know more about Mediterranean smuggling trade

A Swiss company was accepting smuggled fuel from Libya inside tanks leased from Enemed between 2014 and 2015, to resell the oil at sea and the European market.

Kolmar, of Zug, acquired the oil from the smuggling operation ran by Libyan smuggler Fahmi Slim Ben Khalifa, and Maltese nationals Darren and Gordon Debono, well before the Italian police caught up with the smuggling network.

The oil was cleared by the Malta Customs despite fraudulent certification from Fahmi Slim’s Tiuboda company, while the tanks were leased to Kolmar after the Swiss company made a public bid for the storage. Enemed, the government petroleum divison, has said it was unaware of the contents of the storage because the oil had been cleared by Customs.

Using data from ship movements and information on bank payments, a new investigation confirms that the tanks at Ras Hanzir and Has Saptan were used to store oil delivered by the ships chartered by Darren and Gordon Debono.

But the fuel was accepted by the Malta Customs despite fraudulent certificates of origin, and the numerous protests of Libyan leaders about fuel being smuggled into Malta.

The revelations are part of an investigation carried out by NGO TRIAL International and the Swiss public advocacy group Public Eye, which campaigns on issues of corporate accountability.

Libyan fuel smuggling: a Swiss trader sailing through troubled waters

Together with journalists and the assistance of MaltaToday in obtaining information through Freedom of Information requests, the report reveals a sustained pattern of deliveries of smuggled Libyan oil, into tanks leased out from Enemed, the government’s petroleum company, by Kolmar.

The oil was later blended out at sea so that it could be resold onto the European market.

Specifically, over 20 shipments of marine gasoil from Libya were delivered to Kolmar’s tanks in Malta between the spring of 2014 and the summer of 2015, from ships chartered by Gordon Debono.

These new findings concern activities that predate what was revealed by a United Nations panel of experts in 2015 which led to the arrests of ‘smuggling king’ Fahmi Slim, the Debonos and their Italian associates.

A copy of a Banif Bank statement for Oceano Blu Trading Ltd, a company linked to Darren Debono and based at his San Gwann address, shows that from 18 June to 22 July 2015, Kolmar made 11 transfers totalling over $11 million. Oceano Blu Trading was administered by the Sicilian Nicola Orazio Romeo, who is also indicted over fuel smuggling in Sicily.

From October 2012 to December 2015, Kolmar was the exclusive leaser of Ras Hanzir’s eight fuel tanks; from July to December 2015, Kolmar also occupied all five fuel tanks at the Has Saptan underground storage near Malta Airport.

Using data from the automatic identification systems (AIS) of the ships Amazigh F, Ruta and Selay - all chartered by Darren and Gordon Debono - the report finds shocking results: from 27 May 2014 to 18 July 2015, the three ships offloaded some 50,000 MT of marine gasoil 22 times at Ras Hanzir (19) and Has Saptan (3), during the time Kolmar leased these storage units.

And the data between the ships’ mooring at the dolphins on nine dates between 15 June and 17 July 2015, overlaps the same days between 18 June and 22 July 2015 when Kolmar transferred its €11 million in payments to Oceano Blu Trading.

Today it is known that the smuggled oil from Libya was being passed off to the Maltese authorities, chiefly the Customs Department, using fraudulent certificates of origin from Fahmi Slim’s company Tiuboda Oil Refining Company: they were accepted from Kolmar by the Maltese authorities without batting an eyelid.

The oil was then sold either out at sea from Kolmar’s supply barges, but also in Europe: by paying duties and other taxes, Kolmar was free to blend the fuel with European products, to then sell it in Europe as an EU product.

For their part, Maltese customs officers refused to comment, saying that whenever there is a suspicion of illicit activity or false documents, the case is referred to the police.

2016: Operation Dirty Oil

At the time when the transfers were made by Kolmar to Oceano Blu Trading in 2015, neither the UN experts nor the Italian investigators had the Ben Khalifa-Debono network in their sights.

Well after 2013, Libyan prime ministers who visited Malta often complained publicly that large quantities of smuggled fuel were being diverted to the island.

In February 2015, UN experts called on the Security Council to tackle the issue of fuel smuggling, after providing it with information of illicit ship-to-ship transfers from the Ruta, one of Gordon Debono’s tankers.

It was only in October 2017 that the Debonos were arrested by Italian police and placed under house arrest; Fahmi Slim had been arrested a month earlier in Libya after losing the protection of the powerful Ali al Gatrani, the chair of the economic committee of the Libyan House of Representatives.

Together with Nicola Orazio Romeo, and Maxcom Bunker representatives, the criminal ring is facing charges for “transnational conspiracy to launder gasoil of illicit origin and fraud”; the trial is going in Syracuse. But while the Italian police identified Kolmar as a “close partner of Gordon and Darren Debono”, the Zug-based company has not been investigated by the Italian authorities.

Russia has also blocked a Maltese attempt at placing oil smuggling suspects Darren Debono and Gordon Debono on a United Nations sanctions list, with a last-minute veto on a Security Council designation. In the strong-worded designations, the Maltese government said the two men had “consistently attempted to undermine the peace, stability, and security of Libya” with their involvement in the oil smuggling crime ring.

Debono has also said that he held meetings with a naval attaché from the United States embassy in Malta in a bid to have sanctions on his ships and other assets lifted by the Office of Foreign Assets Control. He revealed in an affidavit to a Maltese court, that he was asked for information about former P Minister Joseph Muscat and former chief of staff Keith Schembri, in exchange for lifting US sanctions on him. Both the government of Malta and the United States issued an unprecedented statement to hit out at the allegations.