The Malta Independent 17 November 2018, Saturday

Judge halts striking-off of five vessels from shipping register amid oil smuggling investigation

Wednesday, 25 April 2018, 16:30 Last update: about 8 months ago

A judge has halted the striking-off of five vessels from Malta's flag state shipping register because of their part-ownership by ex-footballer Darren Debono, saying the measure would be "draconian and premature."

Debono is currently in the custody of the Italian authorities after he was arrested in connection with a fuel smuggling operation.

The shipping vessels MV Marie De Lourdes I through V belong to World Water Fisheries, of which Debono is a shareholder.

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World Water Fisheries Ltd had filed an application for a warrant of prohibitory injunction against the Registrar General of Ships and Sailors at Transport Malta, the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects on April 5, asking the court to prevent the defendants from striking the vessels off the Maltese shipping register.

Debono is implicated in a UN sanctions-busting fuel smuggling operation that sold contraband petroleum products, sourced from Libya, in Europe. He is currently undergoing criminal proceedings in Italy for this reason.

The defendants had justified their demand for the ships' deflagging by telling judge Joseph Zammit McKeon that the Malta had painstakingly built up its reputation as a flag state of good standing in the ship registration industry over the years and that it "was not in the national interest that it be stained by actions such as those of Darren Debono."

World Water Fisheries, however, had argued that judicial proceedings against Debono in Italy had not yet been concluded and that there were no similar cases for him to answer to locally. The vessels due to be struck off had always been used for fishing purposes and had no connection to oil smuggling, the company contended.

The court, after examining in detail the legal requirements for the upholding of a warrant of prohibitory injunction noted that the Sanctions Monitoring Board of the UN had initially not recommended the deflagging of the vessels, but had only made the following recommendation: "The SMB is therefore calling for special attention regarding the decision taken by the OFAC, considering that Maltese national and legal persons, entities and bodies feature on the list. The SMB strongly recommends that all economic operators and financial institutions in the Republic of Malta exercise enhanced due diligence when dealing with the persons, entities and bodies listed by the OFAC and with assets belonging to these persons, entities and bodies."

But just three days later, on 6 March 2018, the SMB had changed its stance dramatically and recommended the striking off of the vessels to send "a strong message, nationally and internationally on matters relating to the observance of international law". The judge noted that no explanation was given for this sudden volte face, despite its grave implications.

Stateless vessels lose all their rights, including the EU fishing licence, noted the judge, saying that the measure would be "draconian and premature," in view of the fact that the criminal case against Debono was yet to be decided.

This was enough for the court to reach a decision at law, as when dealing with injunctions, its remit was solely to ascertain whether a prima facie (at face value) right existed that would be harmed if the injunction was not granted. It was not the task of that particular court to delve into the merits of the issue, said the judge, adding that none of the parties can or should expect the court to decide the issue at face value with the "special and particular procedure of the warrant of prohibitory injunction."

The damage which would be suffered by the plaintiff were the request for an injunction to be refused would be "greatly disproportionate" when compared to that possibly incurred by the defendants, said the court, as it upheld the application. The judge, however, ruled that the costs of this procedure would be allocated according to the outcome of a subsequent case on the merits.

 


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