Fisher in fuel smuggling investigation claims he is ‘sacrificial lamb’

Fishing operator Paul Piscopo claims a judge's order to have the police investigate him over fuel smuggling is to make an example of him

Paul Piscopo: court requests investigation
Paul Piscopo: court requests investigation

A fishing operator reported to the police by a judge on fuel smuggling accusations, is claiming the authorities are making “an example” of him.

The decision was handed down by Judge Silvio Meli on Tuesday after fishing operator Paul Piscopo lost a request for the release of his boat – the Dimitra – which had been seized by customs in 2013 after being found with some 8,000 litres of undeclared diesel, from a total load of some 40,000 litres, on board by the Maltese armed forces.

Speaking to MaltaToday, Piscopo, who is also the secretary-general of fishing co-op Ghaqda Koperattiva Sajd, insisted there was no basis for the decision.

“The Dimitra’s crew was not found guilty, and the only pending matter was the return of the money deposited with Customs after taking consignment of the vessel,” Piscopo said.

The vessel was, in fact, returned to Piscopo two years after its seizure in 2013, after a Customs surveyor valued the vessel and the fuel it was carrying at €35,000 and €13,678 respectively. The Customs Department confirmed that Piscopo presented two drafts with the respective amounts to replace the seized goods and provide a guarantee on any legal claim made in their regard.

While Piscopo was in court with his claim against Customs, the Dimitra was already sold off. Piscopo intends appealing the decision, saying he wants his money back, and that he is seeking a meeting with the Commissioner of Police on the matter.

Piscopo also said he will be resigning his post in the fishing co-op, but remained critical of Judge Silvio Meli’s decision. “We can’t go from justice to injustice, just so we can make it seem as though we’re doing something about what happened,” Piscopo said, referring to speculated links between the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia just over two weeks ago, and fuel smuggling rings.

In its decision, the court flagged a number of issues – on the basis of which it ordered a police investigation – such as the fact that no fishing equipment was found on board when the Dimitra was intercepted, that the vessel’s VHF system had been switched off, that it was carrying undeclared diesel, and was also carrying a portable fuel meter. 

Mr Justice Silvio Meli said the “resultant indications was that the company was involved in the contraband of petroleum products through the use of fishing vessels… The interception, arrest and escort of the ship was the result of a reasonably serious suspicion of crime… since this is an illegal operation with the possibility of a crime having been committed, this Court sends a copy of its decision to the Commissioner of Police so that all criminal steps are taken against the people in question.”

Piscopo was adamant with his own justifications for all these observations: that the Dimitra had a winch on board, because his boat was registered to pull fish-farm cages; that he was not aware his VHF was off because the fisheries department never notified him; or that it was reasonable for him have a fuel meter on board, given that it is common practice for the bigger fishing vessels to buy fuel at sea.

Piscopo is no stranger to controversy, and he is quick to dispel other accusations that tie him to fuel smuggling. His son, Matthew, was imprisoned in Libya in March 2013 on accusations of fuel smuggling aboard an Egyptian vessel, but Piscopo says he was acquitted six months later. Piscopo’s former partner Albert Tabone in the now defunct company Sunoil Management, also has a connection with Italian national Andrea D’Aloja, extradited to Italy from the Dominican Republic in 2015 over a ‘Mafia Capitale’ investigation into fuel smuggling (MaltaToday is not suggesting any connection between this investigation and Piscopo).

Piscopo is adamant that the Maltese courts’ decision into the Dimitra seizure, is because efforts are underway to make an example of him. 

“Now it’s all about this story [fuel smuggling] because everyone wants to do something about what happened. Maybe, [the judge] wants to divert attention,” he said. “I am going to be the sacrificial lamb, but if [the judge] wants to look at contraband, there is a lot for him to look at.”

Piscopo, who has already had another vessel seized in Libya in the past, claimed discriminatory treatment because he was never given a copy of the report prepared by investigators. He adds that the Dimitra was not the only vessel found to be carrying undeclared fuel at the time. The others, he claimed, were allowed to pay a simple fine.

Customs had also found 28,000 litres of smuggled diesel aboard the MV Padre Pio, 110,000 litres aboard the MV Golden Dawn, and 150,000 litres on the MV Silver King. But the latter ship’s owners later told this newspaper it had presented invoices showing the diesel was purchased legally.

He then says the Dimitra was intercepted by the AFM between 22 and 24 nautical miles from Malta, where it was adrift, and awaiting orders. “It was not headed to Malta, which is why it did not declare the fuel it was carrying.”

According to the law, once vessels are 24 miles from Malta they must declare any previously undeclared fuel they are carrying. “This is what the law says. But the procedure is different,” he claims, saying many vessels are today within the 24-mile zone and carrying undeclared fuel. “The procedure was that Customs would come to port upon your arrival, and you would tell them how much you are carrying.”

Upon declaring the fuel, Customs would inform the fisheries department to deduct the declared amount from the vessel’s duty-free diesel allocation.