Swiss launch criminal investigation on smuggled oil held inside Enemed tanks

Swiss authorities investigating company that acquired smuggled Libyan oil stored in Malta fuel tanks, rubber-stamped by Customs

The Swiss authorities have launched formal investigations into alleged complicity in pillage after a Swiss company, Kolmar, used Malta’s fuel storage tanks to store Libyan fuel that was smuggled into Malta.

The investigation has implications for Malta since it remains unknown how smuggled oil from Libya obtained Customs clearance to be stored in Enemed tanks.

The move follows a criminal complaint handed in by TRIAL International, which was assisted by MaltaToday in obtaining information on the scale of fuel consignments held in Enemed tanks.

The Swiss Attorney General said suspicions had been substantiated in a preliminary investigation.

Swiss company Kolmar is suspected of having accepting smuggled fuel from Libya inside tanks it had leased from Enemed between 2014 and 2015.

The oil was acquired from the smuggling operation run 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 in October 2017.

TRIAL International and Public Eye used data from ship movements and information on bank payments, to show how tanks at Ras Ħanżir and Ħas 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 numerous protests from Libyan leaders about fuel being smuggled into Malta.

Kolmar purchased over 50,000 tonnes of gasoil from Libya in 2014 and 2015, which had originally been diverted and stored in Malta.

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

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 by the Maltese authorities without batting an eyelid.

For their part, Maltese Customs have insisted that since the imported fuel was refined and not crude oil, it was at the time legal to import to Malta.

Questions to Malta Customs from November 2020:

1. Prior to 2016, oil delivered by ships whose owners were targeted in Operation Dirty Oil (Darren and Gordon Debono) was being delivered to Kolmar, a Swiss company which rented out Enemed storage tanks for the fuel. The fuel originated from the Tiuboda company owned by Fahmi Ben Khalifa (later also arrested and connected to Operation Dirty Oil). Did Malta Customs clear these consignments of oil delivered by the Amazigh F, Ruta and Selay to Kolmar tanks at Enemed? Please confirm whether Customs validated these oil consignments?

2. How did it clear oil which originated from Libya?

3. In the specific case of the Tiuboda oil deliveries to Kolmar, how was Customs satisfied that these deliveries did not breach the oil embargo on Libya?

Reply by Malta Customs:

“Deliveries did not breach the oil embargo on Libya because restrictive measures were imposed on crude oil only – not refined oil – in January 2016 but these measures were extended on all petroleum products in August 2017.

“In fact: Article 15, paragraph 1 of COUNCIL REGULATION (EU) 2016/44 of 18 January 2016 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Libya and repealing Regulation (EU) No 204/2011, outlined that: ‘It shall be prohibited to load, transport or discharge crude oil from Libya on designated vessels flying the flag of a Member State unless authorised by the competent authority of that Member State after consultation with the Government of Libya focal point.’

“However the same article was amended and replaced in COUNCIL REGULATION (EU) 2017/1419 of 4 August 2017 amending Regulation (EU) 2016/44 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Libya, as follows: ‘It shall be prohibited to load, transport or discharge petroleum, including crude oil and refined petroleum products from Libya on designated vessels flying the flag of a Member State unless authorised by the competent authority of that Member State after consultation with the Government of Libya focal point.’;

“Please note that no crude oil was ever imported in Malta and all other shipments you are referring to consisted of gas oil, not crude oil, covered with the required documentation.”

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.

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 Prime 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.