[WATCH] Timing of sanctions request against fuel smugglers remains unclear

Foreign Affairs minister Carmelo Abela hinted that the move may have been the result of ‘recent’ information received by the Sanctions Monitoring Board

Sanctions requested against two Maltese nationals over fuel smuggling may have been the result of “recent” information received by the Sanctions Monitoring Board, Carmelo Abela said.

The Foreign Minister said the request for the UN to impose sanctions against Darren Debono and Gordon Debono came from the Maltese Sanctions Monitoring Board but Abela was unable to say why Malta only took this course of action now.

Both men had been flagged by the UN, a couple of years ago, as being involved in an international fuel smuggling ring between Libya, Malta and Italy.

They were subsequently arrested by the Italian authorities as part of an investigation nicknamed Dirty Oil in October 2017.

MaltaToday reported a fortnight ago that Russia blocked Malta’s attempt to ask for UN sanctions after it raised questions at a late stage in proceedings.

Abela insisted that the Sanctions Monitoring Board was independent from government despite falling under the Foreign Ministry’s portfolio. He insisted Malta was committed to fight smuggling in all its forms.

“The Sanctions Monitoring Board works on reports that they receive, both locally and internationally… it may have worked on this particular case now based on new information it may have received recently,” Abela said.

Questions sent to the Sanctions Monitoring Board on the Debonos’ case were met with a “no comment”.

“We engage with Maltese subject persons on a regular basis to discuss specifics of cases, provide guidance and/or authorisations, and more, however, your question pertains to the specifics of a potential case which we cannot comment upon,” the Sanctions Monitoring Board replied.

The Foreign Minister refused to speculate when asked whether Russia’s decision to block sanctions was a form of retaliation against Malta.

Malta had refused entry into its airspace of Russian military aircraft on their way to Venezuela, earlier this year, a move that miffed the Russians.

“I don’t know, maybe one can ask this question to the Russians, as they are the ones who took the decision to raise questions,” Abela said, clarifying that the Russians had not used their veto against Malta’s sanctions request.

“They didn’t take the step to veto that request but asked for further clarification through their questioning. We are still waiting to receive their questions formally, which we will answer,” he added.

The Debonos have been accused in Italy of operating boats in the Mediterranean to smuggle fuel obtained in Libya into European markets.

They are accused of producing false invoices to cover the origin of the smuggled Libyan fuel.

The two were arrested in 2017 by Italian authorities on Lampedusa and Catania, following the arrest of smuggling kingpin Fahmi Slim Bin Khalifa by Libyan militias. 

In a designation to the UN, the Maltese government had accused the men of “consistently attempting to undermine the peace, stability and security of Libya”.

Only last week, one of the men asked the courts to block Malta’s attempt to file for sanctions.

The Sanctions Monitoring Board is made up of members representing various ministries, the office of the Attorney General, the Central Bank, the police, the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit, customs and the office of the Prime Minister.