Valletta restaurant blacklisted by Americans over fuel smuggling charges, to change name

The business was blacklisted in a fresh round of sanctions by the US Treasury Department, aimed at blocking the trafficking of oil from Libya

A preliminary court hearing in Catania on charges of fuel smuggling against the former Malta international footballer Darren Debono has been postponed to April 20.

The businessman and restaurateur was arrested on the island of Lampedusa in October last year, on charges that have also landed him on an American trade blacklist.

Debono and his businesses, as well as other accomplices, were blacklisted in a fresh round of sanctions by the US Treasury Department, aimed at blocking the trafficking of oil from Libya.

His seafood restaurant in the Marsamxett port of Valletta, Scoglitti, was also hit by the US Treasury Department blacklist.

But this week, the restaurant – which has been shuttered since Debono’s arrest – was preparing to reopen under a new name: Porticello, which like Scoglitti, is a Sicilian town.

MaltaToday was unable to establish whether Debono still retains the trading licence of the new restaurant, or whether it has passed on to a close associate.

While in Catania, Debono remains under house arrest. His lawyer said he is not required to sign at a police station, and expressed confidence that some of the more serious charges against his client could be downgraded.

Debono will next face a preliminary court hearing before a ‘GUP’ judge, in a court hearing that is akin to a compilation of evidence sitting. The GUP is to decide whether the evidence is sufficient to take the case forward for hearing before another judge.

Debono was arrested in October following an investigation by Italian police into a racket where Libyan ‘smuggling king’ Fahmi Bin Khalifa supplied smuggled Libyan fuel through Debono’s ships, to an Italian merchant.

Debono is believed to have used his fleet of fishing vessels to transport the smuggled fuel out of Libya so that it could be sold in Italian ports. The crime syndicate included Maltese businessman Gordon Debono, who was arrested in Catania, and Nicola Orazio Romeo, said to be a Siclian Mafia associate.

The trade blacklist by the US Treasury Department’s office of foreign asset control hit Darren Debono, Gordon Debono, Rodrick Grech and Terence Micallef in a list of six individuals, 24 companies and seven vessels. They included Debono’s vessels, the Maltese companies that acted as clearing houses for the oil transhipments, as well as his own Valletta restaurant, Scoglitti.

The €30-million fuel racket was dismantled by Italian police investigators who had been intercepting phone-calls from Darren Debono for two years.

He is suspected of having been the crucial link that made possible the transportation of smuggled Libyan oil to Italian markets, with the help of Gordon Debono to issue false invoices.

The investigators said Darren Debono and Gordon Debono would participate in “summits” in Italy with broker Marco Porta, and then meet Bin Khalifa in Libya.

In a bid to hide the illicit origin of the fuel being bunkered out at sea, Gordon Debono would use the company Petroplus Ltd to issue false invoices; while Darren Debono and Romeo would use the company Oceano Blu Trading Ltd, as well as other offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands, to hide the flow of money used to pay Bin Khalifa.

Once the fuel was bunkered at sea, and then acquired by Marco Porta’s Maxcom Bunker SpA in Italy, Porta would use false documentation issued by Petroplus, to hide the origin of the fuel – documents which were, possibly unknowingly, validated by the Libyan-Maltese Chamber of Commerce.

Debono was also intercepted coordinating the movements of the ships involved in the bunkering of the Libyan oil, showing how he had a handle on the shipping movements carrying the smuggled fuel.