Oil trader Darren Debono has refuted a stunning allegation by author Mark Camilleri that he was involved in a covert operation to refuel Russian warships.
“I wasn’t involved in any way with the refuelling of the Admiral Kuznetsov or other Russian ships,” Debono told Lovin Malta. “I never had any meetings with politicians with regards to refuelling this or any other Russian ship, and Keith Schembri never called me to speak about anything.”
In his new book, A Rent Seeker’s Paradise, Camilleri claimed that secret moves were afoot after a Russian flotilla requested permission to refuel in Malta in October 2016.
Led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the flagship of the Russian Navy, the ships had originally planned to refuel in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta but ended up withdrawing this request following criticism by Nato that the ships could be used to bomb Syrian civilians in the Siege of Aleppo.
International pressure immediately piled on Malta, with an online campaign launched to urge the government to deny entry and services to ships that could assist in the slaughter of Aleppo citizens.
On 27th October 2016, a day after Russia withdrew its Ceuta request, then Foreign Affairs Minister (now President of the Republic) George Vella said that Malta won’t be refuelling the flotilla as it doesn’t want to be party to the obscenities committed in Aleppo.
The Associated Press then reported that it received a letter showing Malta had given the Russian military replenishment fuel tanker RFS Dubna diplomatic clearance to berth in Malta one week before Vella’s announcement.
During the 2017 election campaign, then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat claimed Malta had received intelligence from foreign agencies to expect Russian meddling in the election as payback for its refusal to refuel the warships, as well as for its role in facilitating a visa waiver programme for Ukraine while in charge of the EU rotating presidency.
However, Camilleri, a former PL delegate and chairman of the Malta Book Council, has now claimed this was nothing but a mise-en-scène, theatrics to cover up the truth that Malta had actually refueled the ships.
In his book, he said then OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri had called up Darren Debono to ask him to refuel the Kuznetsov in foreign waters. However, as the Kuznetsov runs on heavy-fuel oil and Debono traded in diesel, another oil player had to be roped in to provide him with the HFO needed to refuel the Russian ship.
Camilleri didn’t mention the name of this second oil player in his book but he told Lovin Malta he knew their identity. Debono has denied any involvement.
“Surprise surprise, the Russians voted against a UN Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Darren Debono,” Camilleri wrote. “Yet the Russians didn’t miss the opportunity to make some public theatre to the press, complaining about being discriminated against by the Maltese government for supposedly failing to refuel the warship.”
This was a reference to Russia’s 2019 veto on a request by Malta to place Debono and Gordon Debono on a UN-sanctioned list due to concerns they were involved in an oil smuggling ring involving Libyan and Italian mafia associates.
A few days after this veto, then US Charge d’Affaires Mark Schapiro was interviewed by Xtra, in which he accused Russia of siding with “known gangsters and smugglers” and against Malta.
“That’s not OK, that should not be acceptable and Malta has every right to be frustrated and disgusted by this,” Schapiro said.
“The world right now is defined by great power competition, especially in the central Mediterranean.”
“Malta should do what is in Malta’s interests to do. We hope that that also means doing the right thing but Malta’s moral and political compass on this issue has been very clear and we are happy to support this.”
However, a few days after Schapiro’s interview, Darren Debono filed an affidavit which claimed US navy officials had actually approached him for information about whether Malta had secretly refuelled the Russian flotilla in foreign waters.
“These Americans have made my life hell, following me and sending out people to investigate me, but lately they have not been persistent because they are hoping that I will bring them the information they asked of me, which information I indeed do not have because I was not involved in the circles they are referring to,” Debono said in his affidavit.
A month later, Debono’s lawyer Victor Bugeja said in court that US navy officials had even asked his client for information about Joseph Muscat and Keith Schembri and their alleged covert refuelling of the Russian ships.
“[Debono] said, ‘no because he is my Prime Minister and I am not a spy’,” Bugeja said.
In his book, Camilleri claimed Muscat could manage oil smuggling operations, safe in the knowledge that the police didn’t have the resources or know-how to clamp down on them and that, in either case, the police commissioner was just his “lapdog”.
“With a police commissioner doing his bidding and an inefficient police force, Muscat could actually manage not only the government and the country, but even the underworld,” Camilleri said.
“And there were many people involved in this business who had an interest to keep it covert. Darren Debono paid a lot of people. Profit from these operations flowed into the Maltese economy quite openly and many people knew of these shenanigans because many different players were involved in executing this business and then laundering the money.”
“And the Maltese government knew about it too, and allowed it with the knowledge of everyone in the business that it was allowing Darren to get ahead.”
In October 2017, Debono was arrested by Italian police on charges of smuggling fuel from Libyan oil trader Fahmi Ben Khalifa to an Italian merchant, a case which is still ongoing.
Tripoli’s RADA Special Deterrence Forces had described Ben Khalifa as the “famous smuggling king of Zuwarah” and “one of the biggest smugglers of hydrocarbons and manipulators of Libyan assets”.
Debono has never been charged with fuel smuggling in Malta but in November 2020 he was charged with money laundering along with his friend and former Malta football team-mate Jeffrey Chetcuti.
Debono’s stepdaughter Floren Sultana, as well as Albert Buttigieg, were later also charged with money laundering in connection with their respective seafood restaurants – Scoglitti in Valletta and Capo Mulini in Marsaxlokk.
Although numerous media reports suggest the suspects are believed to have laundered the proceeds of fuel smuggling, police have yet to clarify their suspicions of their predicate offences in court.
All of these money laundering cases are currently ongoing.
Debono has protested his innocence following accusations of oil smuggling.
“I am confident that my business in oil trading that started roughly in 2013 with reputable private enterprises in Malta was legitimate and conducted above board,” he told Lovin Malta. “My trading was always done with the full knowledge and consent of various government entities and regulators from day one and has always been conducted lawfully.”
Lovin Malta has received a letter that the Maltese Sanctions Monitoring Board had sent Debono in July 2016 which confirmed that neither he, Ben Khalifa, nor their companies and ships were listed under UN or EU sanctions.
Debono’s arrest in Lampedusa came a few days after journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated in Malta, and a number of Maltese and Italian media reports had instantly sought to draw a connection between the two events.
On 25th October 2017, Times of Malta quoted “sources close to the murder investigation” as stating that Caruana Galizia had been looking into fuel smuggling for some weeks prior to her murder and that this was being treated as one of the main avenues of investigation.
However, in the midst of the November 2019 political crisis triggered by the arrest of Yorgen Fenech in connection with Caruana Galizia’s murder, MaltaToday owner Saviour Balzan said that Keith Schembri had fomented a narrative in the press that fuel smugglers were behind the murder.
This was also brought up in the public inquiry report which found the state culpable of creating a state of impunity that allowed Caruana Galizia to get murdered.
“Journalism can be abused when a state entity or people within them spread fake news using the services of journalists who they think they can trust,” the inquiry report. “The board is informed that this is what happened after the assassination when OPM spread the possibility that fuel smugglers were behind the crime, news that also started to spread in the international news.”
Camilleri has released 100 limited editions of his book on Open Sea, a global digital marketplace for non-fungible tokens, one of which has been obtained by Lovin Malta. It is set to be released to the mass market on 15th October.
Cover photo: Background: The Admiral Kuznetsov (Photo: Ministry of Defence), From left: Darren Debono, Mark Camilleri, Joseph Muscat, Keith Schembri
Do you plan to read Mark Camilleri’s new book?