Smuggling kingpin got Libyan politician’s ‘stamp of approval’ for fuel exports

Libyan-Maltese crime syndicate bolstered by Tripoli’s letter saying smuggling kingpin Fahmi Slim’s fuel operation was bona fide

Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa (left) and Darren Debono
Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa (left) and Darren Debono

The crime syndicate that smuggled some €30 million in fuel oil from Libya using Maltese ships, was assisted by the signature of one of Libya’s most powerful political players.

A letter dated November 2015, seen by MaltaToday in its original Arabic version and a certified English translation, shows that Ali Gatrani – a member of the Libyan Presidency Council – put his name to a letter certifying smuggling king Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa’s operation Tiuboda Oil and Gas Services, as a bona fide company.

Two experts who spoke to MaltaToday said they were in no doubt that Gatrani was at the time aware of Bin Khalifa’s smuggling operations from the port of Zwara.

MaltaToday was unable to secure a comment from Gatrani on the implications of the letter.

Gatrani is a member of the Libyan House of Representatives, which was ousted from power in Tripoli by Islamist-led Libya Dawn forces, and forced to flee to Tobruk.

Gatrani, signing his letter as chairman of the House of Representatives’ economy, trade and investment committee, effectively allowed Ben Khalifa’s company to be recognised as a legitimate business operation.

“The Economy, Trade and Investment Committee at the House of Representatives… within the framework of motivating and encouraging nationals to take part and raise the performance standard and to accelerate the national economy of the country, until it becomes on the same level of developed countries, has no objection for such institutions to carry out their business,” Gatrani wrote of Tiuboda Oil and Gas Services on 23 November, 2015.

The letter’s timing is all the more crucial, having been written right after the revealing exposé on 16 October 2015 by Ann Marlowe in the Asia Times, where she revealed how Fahmi Slim Ben Khalifa was a powerful human and fuel trafficker working in partnership with Maltese businessmen.

It was through such a letter, carrying the stamp of Libya’s recognised government at the time, that Ben Khalifa and his Maltese accomplices could convince authorities that the fuel they were trading was purchased legally.

Additionally, although knowing that Fahmi Slim was a smuggling kingpin, Gatrani would later complain that the Maltese government was ignoring complaints on fuel smuggling.

After the UN report was issued in March 2016, Gatrani was reported in the Libyan press to have sent a letter on 17 July to the Maltese ambassador on illegal fuel exports to Malta through companies licensed for “oil services” – a veiled reference to Tiuboda’s activities.

But seven days later, the Maltese foreign ministry told the press that the ambassador had never received any such communication.

Two Maltese men, former Malta international footballer Darren Debono and fuel trader Gordon Debono were recently arrested in Lampedusa and Catania respectively on 20 October. Darren Debono was a business partner of Ben Khalifa, the latter arrested in August by Tripoli militia Rada after having run his smuggling operation freely since 2012.

But a three-year police investigation in Italy that came to a head last month, revealed how Tiuboda smuggled fuel out of Libya, using Maltese ships and the connivance of Italian merchants using false certificates to place the fuel on European markets.

The crime syndicate used false certificates to obtain a stamp of approval from the Maltese Chamber of Commerce so that their fuel exports could be offloaded at Italian ports.

When in 2016 a UN panel of experts confirmed the smuggling allegations reported in the Asia Times and Wall Street Journal, the syndicate procured the signature of Maltese notary Anton Borg on the certificates of origin, to show it hailed from the Azzawija Oil Refining Company, a subsidiary of the Libyan national oil company. The Azzawija letterhead and National Oil Corporation symbol were used to falsely claim the sale of fuel made to Tiuboda. According to Italian investigators, the certificate had actually been procured by a man identified as ‘Fitouri’, believed to be an NOC official, for a bribe of 120,000 Libyan dinars (€74,000) paid into a Dubai bank account.

With these certificates in hand, Debono was successful in obtaining two apostilles from the Maltese ministry of foreign affairs’ legalisation officer, when the Chamber of Commerce stopped certifying his exports.