Americans say no deal for Debono on sanctions

US government and Malta issued a joint statement in apparent denial of 'spying' claim advanced in court by Darren Debono

Darren Debono is fending off attempts by the Maltese government to designate United Nations sanctions against him and Gordon Debono in fuel smuggling from Libya to Italy
Darren Debono is fending off attempts by the Maltese government to designate United Nations sanctions against him and Gordon Debono in fuel smuggling from Libya to Italy

A United States government spokesperson has insisted there is “no deal” available to the suspected fuel smugglers who are seeking reprieve from heavy sanctions against them by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a US government agency.

Darren Debono, the former Malta international footballer facing charges in Italy together with other members of an alleged fuel smuggling link, this week claimed in court that a US embassy official had demanded information from him on smuggling networks to have OFAC sanctions on him lifted.

Debono and co-conspirator Gordon Debono were in court to demand an injunction against Maltese government efforts to designate United Nations sanctions against them.

But a US government spokesperson has told MaltaToday that there was “no quid for quo” for sanctioned persons petitioning OFAC to remove sanctions.

Debono has had bank and investment accounts frozen, his fishing-boats impounded by the Maltese government, and his companies and a restaurant in Valletta blacklisted under the OFAC sanctions for his involvement in the fuel smuggling ring.

“Filing a petition is as simple as writing to OFAC to begin the process of demonstrating that the criteria for designation is no longer applicable or was unsupported. This process is public knowledge, available to all on OFAC’s website.

“In making a sanction listing or de-listing determination, OFAC investigators carry out a thorough investigation consistent with the law and in consultation with the Departments of Justice and State, as warranted. There is no quid pro quo, informal deal, or shortcut available to anyone,” the US government spokesperson told MaltaToday.

The spokesperson said the US government was still backing Maltese attempts to have United Nations sanctions designated against Darren and Gordon Debono.

“We commend Malta’s government and Sanctions Monitoring Board for sponsoring Malta’s first-ever UNSC sanction case package, demonstrating Malta’s commitment to protecting Libya’s natural resources and combating transnational organised crime. Accountability, strong judicial processes, and convictions are the best ways to reassure that criminals are brought to justice.

“The critical issue remains Russia’s actions to delay Malta’s UNSC sanctions. We regret that Russia put the UNSC designations on technical hold in the 1970 Committee on the last day of silence.”

Russia blocked the sanctions with a last-minute veto on a Security Council designation, despite 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 when Russia, a permanent member of the UNSC, ‘broke the silence’ at the eleventh hour, putting a hold on the sanctions. Breaking the silence often implies the participant still has fundamental problems with parts of the text.

Darren and Gordon Debono 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.

The Maltese government has declared in its sanctions designations that the two men had “consistently attempted to undermine the peace, stability, and security of Libya” with their involvement in the oil smuggling crime ring.

Since then, both accused have filed for an injunction in the Maltese courts in an attempt at preventing the government from designating the sanctions.

Debono this week alleged in court that officials from the United States embassy had asked him for information about Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his chief-of-staff Keith Schembri, in exchange for lifting US sanctions on him.

The allegations were previously reported by MaltaToday, from an affidavit in which Debono says that a US naval intelligence officer had requested from him details on drug smuggling and the refuelling of Russian naval units.

“Do you remember those two Russian ships that wanted to dock in Malta and that Malta didn’t allow to refuel? They told him to confirm whether the Prime Minister and the government took them outside territorial waters and whether he gave them fuel himself. They insisted on being given information and asked for information about the Prime Minister and Keith Schembri. He said, ‘No because he is my Prime Minister and I am not a spy’,” Debono’s lawyer, Victor Bugeja, said in court.

Bugeja also claimed that Debono was asked by the Americans to spy on the Maltese government when queried about whether the government had supplied fuel to Russian warships, and that he had refused.

Debono’s lawyer also claimed in court that he had “concrete evidence” showing that the Maltese government’s decision to pursue UN sanctions were not been discussed at Cabinet level.

However, this evidence was not submitted to the court.

Foreign Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela stated in a court affidavit that the Prime Minister and himself “at present do not intend to carry out any of the actions specified by [Debono] and for which he requesting a precautionary warrant of injunction”.

But he said this did not preclude any further action at UN level by the Maltese, or any other interested government seeking sanctions against actors suspected of fuel smuggling.

“Whether or not a petition for sanctions was presented in front of the United Nations Security Council is a matter of confidential nature. If such a petition was presented, the Security Council of the United Nations had the power to accept or reject these sanctions. The government of Malta could only abide with such a decision,” the government said in an official comment.

Government’s statement

In an unprecedented statement by both the US and Maltese governments, both sides appeared to deny Debono’s claims that he was asked to spy as a precondition to have OFAC sanctions lifted.

“Any allegations… including those implying lack of trust in key individuals in the government, are false and have absolutely no impact on our friendship and close collaboration,” the two governments said.

“Our bilateral relations have been consistently strong and continue to go from strength to strength.

“We work together in a very transparent and honest manner, from economic and financial engagement, to cultural and educational exchanges, political consultation, and regional security and law enforcement cooperation.”

Both governments said they were partners in finding solutions to issues of global transnational importance and Central Mediterranean security such as weapons proliferation, climate change, energy security, trafficking in drugs and persons, transnational crime, migration and protecting borders.

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