Americans told Debono to reveal Malta smuggling networks

Americans 'making life hell' for suspected fuel smuggler, who files affidavit saying embassy wants him to spill beans on smuggling gangs

The accused: Darren Debono, Gordon Debono and Fahmi Bin Khalifa; the Americans think they know more about the Mediterranean smuggling trade
The accused: Darren Debono, Gordon Debono and Fahmi Bin Khalifa; the Americans think they know more about the Mediterranean smuggling trade

The suspected fuel smuggler Darren Debono, currently facing charges in Italy, has held meetings with a naval attaché from the United States embassy in Malta in a bid to have sanctions on his ships and other assets lifted by the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Debono, a former Malta international footballer now out on bail in Malta, was asked to collaborate with the embassy by offering up information on the smuggling trade and networks in the Mediterranean, as a precondition to have the OFAC sanctions lifted.

Debono is currently fending off restrictive measures on his ships, as well as from Maltese banks which have prevented him to access various savings accounts and pension funds due to the American sanctions.

Together with Gordon Debono, also charged by Italian police for their involvement in a €30 million Libyan oil smuggling ring, the pair are now asking the courts to prevent Malta from designating further sanctions against them.

But a recent attempt by the Maltese government to have United Nations sanctions issued against the Debonos, was inexplicably prevented by Russia, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Now Debono has revealed in an affidavit to a Maltese court, that in a formal request to the US embassy to have OFAC sanctions lifted, a naval attaché requested that he collaborate by giving information on various smuggling networks in and around Malta.

In a list of questions he was provided with, Debono was asked to reveal influential drug trafficking syndicates, who they sell their cargo to, how they paid their crews to transport drugs and other illicit cargo, as well as to identity businesses owned by such people like Paul Attard – a Maltese shipper who is wanted by Italian police for extradition to face charges of drug trafficking.

In his affidavit, Debono also claims that the attaché asked him about what he knew on requests by the Russian government to the Maltese government on the supply of fuel for their warships, and about the refusal of the Maltese to comply with that request. Malta had previously refused to refuel the Admiral Kuznetsov in 2016 and more recently the Severomorsk, a large anti-submarine guided-missile destroyer, which was refused permission to dock at the Grand Harbour in April.

“I informed him that I had no information on what he was asking of me and I feel I am being used and blackmailed,” Debono wrote in his affidavit to the courts.

"These Americans have made my life hell, following me and sending out people to investigate me, but lately they have not been persistent because they are hoping that I will bring them the information they asked of me, which information I indeed do not have because I was not involved in the circles they are referring to,” Debono said.

Maltese banks have to comply with OFAC sanctions if they are to make use of American correspondent banks to process dollar transactions; Malta’s sanctions monitoring board also recommends enhanced due diligence with OFAC subjects.

Debono has written to the OFAC, an agency of the United States’ Department of Treasury, claiming innocence in the €30 million oil smuggling bust that led to the arrest of Libyan smuggling kingpin Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa, as well as of Sicilia mafia associate Nicola Orazio Romeo and Italian fuel broker Massimo Porta. The Italians’ two-year investigation, dubbed Operation Dirty Oil, followed the movements of Debono’s ships as well as intercepted telephonic conversations, to reveal the central part Debono played in the smuggling ring.

Debono’s ADJ Trading, as well as his other companies and five fishing vessels, were hit by the OFAC blacklist in the wake of the arrests.

Even his Scoglitti restaurant in Valletta was affected by the US sanctions. But Debono says he sold the shares of the owning company Nesvan to his step-daughter, who has since been forced to transfer the business to third parties under pressure of the US sanctions.

“The rule of law and fundamental rights dictate that I am presumed innocent until proven guilty by an independent and impartial tribunal or court of law,” Debono wrote in a petition to the OFAC.

“The sanctions have put me and my family through great hardship, in that all my businesses have been blocked with the result that the livelihood of a number of people employed with my companies has also been put at risk.”

Debono told OFAC that his fishing vessels had “absolutely no connections whatsoever with the Libyan oil transportation issue” and that his fishing business had nothing to do with oil transportation. “The sanctions have subjected me, my business as well as my family to blacklisting and blocked all of us from conducting any normal businesses transactions, through banks and financial institutions. The banks have blocked all our accounts and totally restricted our commercial operations.”

Debono also described himself as an “agent and go-between” for Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa, whom he said “had given us reassurances that he was of good standing… we have now disassociated ourselves from him, immediately stopped all trading relationship with him.”

‘Unacceptable’ Russian actions

Russia has only recently blocked a Maltese attempt to put Darren Debono and Gordon Debono on a United Nations sanctions list, with a last-minute block of the 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 were foiled in the last minute.

Russia ‘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.

MaltaToday is informed Russia broke the silence some two hours before the deadline of the procedure, preventing the text being adopted by all participants.

While Russia’s actions did not constitute a veto, the technical hold came with questions from the Russians, a bureaucratic exercise to which Malta responded quickly in a bid to get the sanctions underway.

But in the meantime, Darren Debono and Gordon Debono have filed court action against the Maltese government to prevent the sanctions designation.

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.

Russia’s decision to delay the sanctions was described as unacceptable by the United States’ chargé d’affaires Mark Schapiro.

“These guys are known gangsters and known smugglers. What just happened at the United Nations is that Russia made a decision to side with known gangsters and smugglers against Malta. That’s not OK, that should not be acceptable and Malta has every right to be frustrated and disgusted by this,” he said on Xtra Sajf on TVM on Thursday.

Schapiro also said that Malta’s decision to present its first ever sanctions designation at the United Nations was an attempt to get around Debono’s stalling actions in the Maltese courts to stop Transport Malta from deregistering his shipping vessels.

“That would have solved these problems because the judge would have been obliged to enforce this, because Malta is a member of the United Nations. It was unfortunate that it didn’t go through.”

Schapiro acknowledged that such bureaucratic measures inside the Security Council are often instigated by political intentions, but would not speculate on the reason for the move. He said, however, that “the world right now is defined by great power competition, especially in the central Mediterranean”.

“Malta should do what is in Malta’s interests to do. We hope that that also means doing the right thing but Malta’s moral and political compass on this issue has been very clear and we are happy to support this.”

In April, Malta refused permission to Russian military aircraft to fly through its airspace en route to Venezuela. Malta turned down two requests by the Russians to fly military aircraft from Syria to Venezuela over Maltese airspace. The US government had reported that an Antonov 124 which had flown 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.

The Russian government had described Malta’s decision to close its airspace to Russian military transport planes as “not friendly”, and that it would take Malta’s decision “into account” when considering bilateral relations with Valletta.

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.

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.