Russia blocks Malta bid for UN smuggling sanctions on Darren and Gordon Debono

Malta’s attempt at getting United Nations sanctions on suspected fuel smugglers Darren and Gordon Debono thwarted by last-minute veto from Russian government

Darren Debono and Gordon Debono: the Maltese government wanted to designate their names for UN sanctions
Darren Debono and Gordon Debono: the Maltese government wanted to designate their names for UN sanctions

Russia has 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.

Despite enjoying the full support of the UN Security Council and various other UN members, Malta’s designations of the oil smuggling suspects – who were at the centre of a €30 million fuel smuggling ring with Libya and Italian Mafia associates at its heart – were foiled at the last minute.

Russia, a permanent member of the UNSC, ‘broke the silence’ at the eleventh hour, putting a hold on the designations of the Maltese nationals who are facing prosecution in Catania, but are out on bail in Malta.

The draft version of the designations are usually circulated among UNSC members for five days for any changes or amendments. MaltaToday is informed Russia broke the silence some two hours before the deadline of the procedure, preventing the text being adopted by all participants.

Breaking the silence often implies the participant still has fundamental problems with parts of the text and is therefore the exception rather than the rule.

Friends and associates: Libyan smuggling king Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa (top) on his arrest by the Rada militia in 2017; a month later, Darren Debono (left) and Gordon Debono (right), as well as mafia associate Nicola Orazio Romeo, were arrested in Italy. Romeo had his offshore companies registered at Debono’s San Gwann address, where his companies are housed
Friends and associates: Libyan smuggling king Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa (top) on his arrest by the Rada militia in 2017; a month later, Darren Debono (left) and Gordon Debono (right), as well as mafia associate Nicola Orazio Romeo, were arrested in Italy. Romeo had his offshore companies registered at Debono’s San Gwann address, where his companies are housed

A high-level source told this newspaper that Malta received messages of support from other countries who are seeking to stem the bunkering and traffic of smuggled fuel on the high seas.

Darren and Gordon Debono (no relation to each other) were arrested in September 2017 by Italian police on the island of Lampedusa and in Catania, respectively, just a month after the arrest of Libyan smuggling kingpin Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa by militias.

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.

But explanations for the Russian non-cooperation so far can only be pinned down to cool relations since Malta refused permission to Russian military aircraft to fly through its airspace back in April, en route to Venezuela.

Malta turned down two requests by the Russians to fly military aircraft from Syria to Venezuela over Maltese airspace, after the US government said an Antonov 124 which flew over Malta earlier in March had arrived in Caracas with Russian personnel wearing desert camouflage uniforms and baseball caps similar, if not identical, to the ones commonly seen on the Kremlin’s troops in Syria.

Malta’s attempts at securing the UN sanctions underpin the international concern over the ‘Wild West’ of oil smuggling that takes place on the territorial edge of Malta’s Hurd’s Bank, where Libyan oil is transferred onto fishing boats with large storage tanks, and is then transferred onto larger tankers.

Operation Dirty Oil

The €30 million fuel smuggling operation, which used false invoices intended to cover the origin of the Libyan oil, used Maltese ships and Italian connections to place the fuel on the market.

A two-year investigation by Italian police, dubbed Operation Dirty Oil, revealed that 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 Sicilian associate Nicola Orazio 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 Porta’s Maxcom Bunker SpA in Italy, Porta would use Petroplus’s false documentation to hide the origin of the fuel – documents which were, possibly unknowingly, validated by the Libyan Maltese Chamber of Commerce.

Debono was intercepted coordinating the movements of the ships involved in the bunkering of the Libyan oil, showing 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 suspect 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 Debono’s 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.”

In the process, Debono was hit by United States sanctions, affecting his ships, businesses, and bank accounts. His flagship restaurant in Valletta, Scoglitti, was also blacklisted, leading to a change in trading name.

Debono ship deregistration

Debono had a partial victory in courts in May when Mr Justice Mark Chetcuti dismissed arguments against the suspected fuel smuggler’s bid to halt the de-flagging of six of his fishing vessels.

The Registrar General of Ships and Sailors and Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects had planned to strike off six vessels belonging to Debono.

But the action was stopped after Debono filed an injunction, protesting that stateless vessels lose all their rights, including the EU fishing licence.

In his decree, the judge noted that the measure would be “draconian and premature” in view of the fact that the criminal case against Debono was yet to be decided.

Debono also said he employed six persons on every fishing boat and that their livelihoods were at stake.

While Debono obtained a warrant of prohibitory injunction against the de-flagging of the vessels and asked the court to confirm it to prevent irremediable damage to his crews on the six vessels, the court dismissed the pleas of the transport ministry.

The court is expected to give a final decision on the merits of the case in the coming weeks.

Senglea FC role

Debono’s re-entry in society, even while facing charges of fuel smuggling in Italy, has now seen him elected to the committee of the Maltese Premier league side Senglea Athletic FC.

Senglea’s president is the notary Reuben Debono, a part-owner of the FES Group plc, which recently issued a €5 million bond to finance its boutique hotel projects.

Darren Debono, a former Valletta FC and Malta international footballer, was photographed with the Senglea president, former Hibs keeper and now Senglea coach Mario Muscat, and coach Steve Vella, for the announcement of the club’s new signings.

According to the Malta Independent, the Malta Football Association can only preclude Debono from being a committee official if he has a criminal record. “He has no criminal record yet as far as we know but the alleged criminality is huge,” the newspaper reported its source as saying.

Reuben Debono was quoted on Net FM’s Replay Ikompli, as saying that Darren Debono will have “an important role” within the club and will be “more than just a committee member”.  The president said that he had been approached by Darren Debono, who said that he would like to help the club in the best way possible.

Darren Debono represented Malta at international level 56 times between 1996 and 2002, having had long spells playing with clubs Sliema Wanderers and Valletta FC.

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