Defence attacks police intelligence on Malta fuel smuggling bust

Lawyers for Maxcom Bunker, an Italian company run by one of the accused, have attempted to discredit wiretap recordings which revealed the extensive operation running from Libya to Malta

Clockwise from left: Fahmi Bin Khalifa, Gordon Debono and Darren Debono
Clockwise from left: Fahmi Bin Khalifa, Gordon Debono and Darren Debono

Lawyers for a major Italian company caught up in the clamorous bust of a €30 million fuel-smuggling operation, are attacking the police evidence that exposed the criminal ring.

The criminal case against former Malta international footballer Darren Debono and his co-conspirators continued in Syracuse earlier this week on Tuesday.

Maxcom Bunker, an Italian company run by co-accused Marco Porta, was used for the acquisition of smuggled fuel out of Libya, to be resold on the Italian and other foreign markets.

Lawyers for Maxcom attempted to discredit the evidence acquired by Italian investigators, especially the wiretaps which revealed the extensive operation running from Libya to Malta. Porta was said to have been ‘dismissed’ by Maxcom, but he is still being defended in court by Maxcom lawyers.

The wiretaps also revealed long conversations in which Debono, who used his vessels for ship-to-ship transfers of Libyan oil, is heard negotiating pricing of the oil consignments and of meetings with Libyan smuggling king Fahmi Bin Khalifa.

Also present in the courtroom, apart from Debono, were co-accused Gordon Debono, who ran the company Petroplus in Malta and is suspected of having issued false certificates of origin for the smuggled fuel; and Sicilian mafia associate, Nicola Orazio Romeo.

Darren Debono and Gordon Debono are being defended by lawyers from the same Catanese legal firm, but during the court case they were sitting away from each other.

They are both under a US trade blacklist, which recently forced Debono to change the name of his Valletta restaurant, apart from installing a mobile ATM for customers since the establishment is unable to process credit card purchases.

The Debonos, no relation to each other, were only recently released from house arrest in Sicily. They were arrested back in October 2017 – Darren Debono was then on the island of Lampedusa when he was arrested, while Gordon Debono was apprehended at the airport of Catania. Their arrest also came a week after that of Bin Khalifa.

According to evidence revealed by police investigators, Darren and Gordon Debono would participate in “summits” in Italy with 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; 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 Maxcom Bunker SpA in Italy, Marco Porta would use false documentation issued by Petroplus, to hide the origin of the fuel.

Italian investigators tapping the phone-calls from Darren Debono’s San Gwann office show Debono trying to convince Porta to buy the fuel for 30c a litre. “Listen Marco, it’s Darren… Mr Fahmi [Bin Khalifa] is selling you… you know, if you can help us a little please, we’re a family, understand?”

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.

Another interception, this time of Marco Porta and a Maxcom employee, makes reference to Nicola Orazio Romeo’s connections to the Sicilian underworld. Romeo, linked to the Mafia clan of Santapaola-Ercolano, was revealed by the Panama Papers of having had offshore companies at the same San Gwann address as ADJ Trading, the firm in which both Debono and Bin Khalifa were once shareholders. “Nicola is part of the real underworld, the one nobody touches,” Porta tells a colleague. “He’s always being tapped when he is in Sicily.”

News of the fuel smuggling ring emerged in 2015 in an article by journalist Ann Marlowe – ‘Why does EU tolerate Libya’s smuggler kingpin as migrants drown?’ – published in the Asia Times. At the time, Debono was still under telephonic surveillance by the Italian police, and he is heard urging caution from his acolytes, to make sure all their documentation is in order.

As news of the fuel-smuggling operation emerged through the United Nations’ experts’ report in 2016, interceptions show a growing apprehension inside the syndicate, to make sure payments for the fuel are cleared and circulated inside their offshore companies. “We have to go to the United Nations,” Debono is heard telling an associate, after having obtained a certificate of origin from the Libyan National Oil Corporation. “They are just copying what some asshole journalist from the Wall Street Journal is writing.”

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