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The Fishy Case Of A Marsaxlokk Restaurant Linked To A Car Bomb, Fuel Smuggling And Money Laundering

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One of the restaurants owned by accused fuel smuggler Darren Debono which was named in court this week in a money laundering case has a history of ownership linked to fuel smuggling. 

The restaurant, Capo Mulini in Marsaxlokk, was formerly called Gente di Mare and was owned by Darren Degabriele, the man killed in a 2014 car bomb attack. 

The case was never solved but the police suspect Degabriele to have been involved in fuel smuggling. His assassination was one of a number of car bomb attacks believed to have been linked to smuggling activities.   

It isn’t clear when the Capo Mulini’s ownership was transferred to Debono, but sources familiar with the fishing industry have claimed that the process had started as far back as 2017. 

The restaurant reopened under the name Capo Mulini in December 2018. Before that, between February 2016 and November 2018, it operated under the name Sotto Mare. It is unclear whether it was owned by Debono during this period.  

What is clear is that it is one of the various establishments owned by Debono which is believed to have been used by him to launder money. 

It was named in court this week in proceedings against Debono’s step-daughter Florinda Sultana and Albert Buttigieg, a retired corporate banking executive at BNF Bank plc, with money laundering and a host of other accusations. 

The two are facing criminal action in their own capacity, as well as over their involvement in the companies Nesvan Company Limited, MS1 Catering Limited and Luzzu Catering Limited.

The companies operate a number of Debono’s establishments including Capo Mulini and Porticello, which was formerly called Scoglitti but was forced to change its name after the imposition of sanctions by the US Treasury Department in 2018.

A search of Sultana’s home yielded a number of documents linked to sales at Porticello, Capo Mulini, Silver Horse and Onda Blu restaurants.

Both companies were established at the end of October 2018. Sultana is the sole shareholder, director and representative of MS1 Catering while Buttigieg occupies the same role with regards to Luzzu Catering. 

Investigations into Sultana and Buttigieg had been underway for some time, with the police issuing arrest warrants for the two last year as part of an anti-smuggling operation that saw Debono, along with his associate Gordon Debono and his wife Yvette, arrested and charged with money laundering linked to a €30 million fuel smuggling racket.

The operation also saw auditor Chris Baldacchino arrested and charged with money laundering. Baldacchino was the auditor for a number of companies owned by Debono, including Nesvan Company. The company’s shares were transferred from Debono to Sultana in July 2015, while Baldacchino resigned as its auditor in February this year.

Both Gordon and Darren Debono had been arrested by Italian police two days after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Darren Debono was arrested on the island of Lampedusa, while Gordon Debono was arrested at the airport in Catania. 

Darren Debono returned to Malta after being released on bail in November 2018.

A former Malta international footballer, Debono’s alleged crimes range from theft to illegal fishing. He appears to have graduated to big-time fuel smuggling at some point between 2014 and 2015. 

In fact, a report by Anne Marlowe for the Asia Times had revealed that the Maltese company ADJ Trading, which has since been dissolved, was part-owned by Debono and Libyan smuggling kingpin Bin Khalifa.

The company owned tankers identified as being involved in the smuggling of Libyan fuel to Europe. The findings were eventually confirmed by a United Nations panel of experts in 2016. 

Sources have described how Debono went from a relatively small-time smuggler to one of the ‘kings’ of the business. 

This is evidenced by the fact that his name has over the years cropped up alongside those of major international players and institutions. 

In 2018, the coordinator of the UN Panel of Experts monitoring Libya could not explain why Debono’s name had been left out of a follow-up to the 2016 report by the panel. The coordinator had suggested that the reason for this was that Debono enjoyed close ties with the Spanish secret service. 

Roughly a year later, the Maltese government had attempted to have both Darren and Gordon Debono added to a United Nations Sanctions list but the effort was blocked by Russia. 

Darren Debono’s lawyer had claimed in court, during proceedings seeking to stop the Maltese government’s efforts, that Debono had been asked by the US embassy in Malta about rumours that he had been the one to refuel Russian warships en route to Syria back in 2016. 

The government had refused to allow the ship to dock in Malta, but Debono’s lawyer had claimed that the US wanted information about whether “the Prime Minister and the government took them outside territorial waters and whether he was the one that gave them the fuel himself”.  

Debono was only arrested by the police and charged with money laundering last November, two years after returning to Malta and three years after his role in the smuggling racket was first revealed. 

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