MALTA: MPs hit out at lack of commitment to fight money laundering.

As published on timesofmalta.com, Monday 22 February, 2021.

Nationalist MP Karol Aquilina, shadow minister for justice, insisted in parliament on Monday that the government needs to let the institutions work against money laundering, and it also needs to explain why no action has been taken yet against Pilatus Bank, those allegedly involved in kickbacks on the sale of passports, and alleged money laundering by MP Konrad Mizzi.

Aquilina was speaking at the opening of a debate on amendments to the Prevention of money laundering Act. Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis explained that the aim of the bill is to transpose the Sixth Money Laundering Directive on combating money laundering into the criminal law.

In his address, Aquilina said the government's lack of commitment to fighting money laundering could be seen from the fact that the deadline for the transposition of this directive passed several months ago.

But this lack of commitment could also be seen elsewhere.

For example, eight months ago, the new Commissioner of Police said the investigation into Pilatus Bank was in the final stages and people would be taken to court. Eight months on, and nothing had happened, even though this was a bank which had had its licence withdrawn by the European authorities. Its owner was taken to court in the USA and there were serious doubts as to why charges against him were dropped.

Similarly, could someone explain why no one was arraigned after the conclusions of the inquiry into kickbacks from passport sales, in which Keith Schembri and Brian Tonna were allegedly involved?

Similarly, no action had been taken against Konrad Mizzi, despite his admission to having set a secret company in Panama and a trust in New Zealand, for reasons which no one believed.

Aquilina suggested that some magistrates should be allowed to focus exclusively on inquiries. It was very difficult for them to work is they had to hear some 120 district cases in the morning, only to then have to handle delicate inquiries, he said.

Malta needed to pass the Moneyval test, he said, but Malta would not have reached this stage had the government not be complacent over money laundering.

Mario de Marco, shadow minister for finance, insisted that the government needed to show conviction in the fight against money laundering and not act out of convenience because of the Moneyval concerns.

Reiterating the lack of action in the cases mentioned by Aquilina, he also observed that although the Asset Recovery Bureau was set up in 2015, it was only two years later that the first of the legal notices to enable it to function were approved, with the rest following in 2018. As a result, the assets recovered from crime had been negligible.

The fight against money launching had to be made without fear or favour, independently if the suspects happened to be a former chief of staff or a former minister, he said.

In winding up the debate, minister Edward Zammit Lewis said there were no excuses for some inquiries to take years, such as six years. This undermined the preservation of evidence. He said there did not seem to be magistrates who were keen to focus exclusively on inquiries. Furthermore, it was not his competence as a minister to tell the chief justice to assign magistrates to work exclusively on inquiries. However, the fact that four more magistrates were being engaged led one to expect greater efficiency in the handling of inquiries. Still it was not easy to recruit supporting staff to work with magistrates in inquiries.

On the Asset Recovery Bureau, the minister said the record on confiscation of assets after a criminal conviction was not a good one. There had been problems, such as the storage of such assets, such as yachts. He was committed to strengthening this sector and a fresh call had been issued for a CEO to run the bureau. Warehousing was also being set up.

What Moneyval had stressed in its report was 'effectiveness of action' and it was this that the government was working on, both through a string of legislation in record time, as well as practical actions. The police, for example, had become more effective as had the Office of the Attorney General. The Opposition had asked about the arraignment of certain people. All were considered equal under the law, the minister said. The structural problems which Malta had were being overcome, Zammit Lewis said. The opposition should be giving a helping hand and it should recognise the work which was being put in.

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