The Malta Independent 21 May 2024, Tuesday
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No serious effort by police to extradite Pilatus officials, Robert Aquilina tells court

Monday, 22 April 2024, 17:24 Last update: about 29 days ago

The former president of NGO Repubblika has compared Malta's 'half-hearted efforts' to charge top Pilatus Bank officials, to the tenacity shown by Italian anti-mafia police.

Robert Aquilina was called to the witness stand on Monday in challenge proceedings filed by the NGO in a bid to obtain a court judgement that would order the Commissioner of Police to press charges against a number of senior officials at the bank.

On Monday Aquilina exhibited authenticated documents which had been leaked to him from the magisterial inquiry conducted by Magistrate Ian Farrugia, as evidence that the magistrate had ordered the police to press charges against several bank officials.

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This included the owner and director of the defunct bank, Ali Sadr Hasheminejad; its director, Hamidreza Ghanbari; CEO Mehmet Taşlı, Chief Information Officer Luis Felipe Riviera, MLRO Claude-Anne Sant Fournier, as well as accounting officer, acting MLRO and risk manager Antoniella Gauci.

Magistrate Nadine Lia, who is presiding over the challenge proceedings, asked why he was exhibiting documents about Sant Fournier, who had already been arraigned and did not feature in the original criminal complaint. Aquilina said the reason was in order for the documentation he presented to be complete. "I am not withholding any documentation from the court," said the witness.

The magistrate repeatedly probed the witness to establish who had given Aquilina the documents, to prove whether the Commissioner of Police was already in possession of copies at the time. Aquilina declined to identify his source, a refusal to which he said, jurisprudence had established that he was entitled.

"Understand what my job is," said the magistrate. "[In challenge proceedings] I am not deciding on guilt, or inquiries, only that the police did not act. I need direct answers to direct questions. I can't go with vague, I go with direct. You are saying persons but not names."

Aquilina told the court that he was "100% certain" that the police commissioner had already been in possession of a copy of the inquiry at the time, adding that police inspector Pauline Bonello had testified to that fact.

Lawyer Jason Azzopardi asked the witness whether he could recall what Inspector Bonello had told the court under oath during Sant Fournier's arraignment. "She had said that the investigations into these people were complete," Aquilina replied.

He added that he had received "absolutely no reply from the police. Not to the criminal complaint and neither to the reminders that we sent them".

Superintendent Jurgen Vella cross-examined the witness, asking Aquilina whether he was aware of any change in the status of the eight people he had mentioned since filing the criminal complaint.

"Since we filed the criminal complaint there has been no change in the position in court, but I know, with certainty, that the police inspectors had asked the Attorney General to sign a nolle prosequi with regards to all the officials bar Sant Fournier, at the request of the Commissioner of Police." 

Aquilina told the court that he had seen and exhibited copies of the Commissioner's request as well as the nolle prosequi itself. The police had been directed to not comply with the inquiring magistrate's instructions, he said.

In fact, Mehmet Tasli had been allowed to leave Malta, Aquilina pointed out, adding that another one of the Bank officials had moved to Austria some time ago.

Superintendent Vella asked whether Aquilina was aware that European and International Arrest Warrants had been issued. "I know that some EAWs have been issued and that the subject of one of them had travelled to Malta to testify and left without being arrested."

Answering a question from the magistrate, Vella said that International or European Arrest Warrants had been issued for all the bank officials, bar the two subject to nolle prosequi.

"I can say with certainty that [the officials] are not being actively sought [by the police]," Aquilina replied. "The US authorities had informed Maltese counterparts of Sadr's whereabouts but there has been no serious effort for these arrest warrants to be executed..."

The execution of the warrants also required ongoing diplomatic efforts, which were absent, he said.

"Often these warrants are issued and you need to chase the authorities overseas to follow them up. This is not happening," Aquilina said. "There is no reasonable hope that these people will ever be brought to Malta. That this is a de facto pardon."

Magistrate Lia pointed out that the execution of the arrest warrants depended on law enforcement services overseas at this point. "What the police are saying is that they have issued the warrants and will arraign the individuals concerned when they are brought back to Malta."

"Notary, you are basing your criminal complaint on third parties. Now the police are saying that they would arraign them. What is your position exactly?" asked the court.

Aquilina explained that the effort being expended for the return of the officials was not commensurate with the damage that Pilatus bank had caused to Malta's international reputation and its FATF greylisting. "Foreign diplomats from EU and non-EU countries have told me that Pilatus is one of the main reasons for Malta's greylisting."

"In Italy, [notorious mafia godfather] Matteo Messina Denaro was arrested. He was not arrested at a roadblock, but anti-mafia police made an active effort to seek him out and arrest him. This is not happening here. Angelo Gafà will not do this and this is why they will never be charged."

In reply to a question from lawyer Jason Azzopardi, the witness said that the inquiry was concluded and delivered to the Commissioner of Police in February 2021, pointing out that several witnesses had already testified to this in these proceedings.

"In what month and year were the arrest warrants issued?" asked Azzopardi.

"During the inquiry. Towards the end of the inquiry, Magistrate Ian Farrugia had been asked to sign the IAW and EAWs which I exhibited here. Several months later slightly altered versions of the same warrants had been signed by a different magistrate."

Azzopardi asked what had held the police back from filing charges against these people before the International Arrest Warrant was issued, as would normally happen. "Was it something legal?" asked the lawyer. "Absolutely not," Aquilina replied. "Is there anything to stop them from charging them?" Azzopardi asked. "Absolutely not," repeated the witness.

Vella asked whether the witness was aware that there was a legal impediment against charging two of the individuals named. "If you're referring to the nolle prosequi, then there is a legal impediment which the Commissioner of Police invented. He can ask the AG to revoke it, but he didn't, in fact he requested it," Aquilina replied.

He added that a nolle prosequi was not irreversible and could be reconsidered at any time, but that the Commissioner had never asked that this position be reversed.

The sitting was adjourned to June.

What documents did Aquilina exhibit?

The documents exhibited on Monday - reports prepared by Duff and Phelps for the magisterial inquiry - state that Sadr "appeared to have had connections" with prominent Maltese figures, including former MFSA Chairman Joe Bannister, as well as Keith Schembri and Joseph Muscat.

The inquiring magistrate had ordered the police and the Attorney General to charge the bank's top executives with money laundering, making false declarations to a public authority and participating in a criminal association with the intention to commit an offence punishable by over imprisonment for over four years.

 


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