Arthur Azzopardi, a lowkey but omnipresent lawyer, has been released on police bail following his arrest in connection to a major smuggling operation in the country.
He’s a criminal lawyer who seems to have a habit of showing up in some of Malta’s most controversial cases.
Here’s everything you need to know:
1. Links to a smuggling operation
Azzopardi was thrust into the national limelight on Tuesday 24th November after his arrest late on Monday night. Gordon Debono, Yvette Debono, and two former footballers, who cannot be named due to court order, have been charged in connection to the case.
They have been charged with money laundering and smuggling offences. Well-informed sources have told Lovin Malta that the investigation involves major findings in a FIAU report on Satabank.
After the bank effectively shut its doors in 2018, the report flagged “highly suspicious” payments and financial movements between suspected organised crime groups, including alleged fuel smugglers.
A probe identified a series of payments amounting to €1.9 million from Gordon Debono to Arthur Azzopardi. When the details of the probe were revealed in 2019, Azzopardi insisted that the funds were transferred on behalf of his client and that police had not questioned him.
“I was not trying to hide anything because there was nothing to hide. I actually welcome the police’s questions and have given them all the KYC (know your client) information and relevant paperwork that I had in connection with my clients,” Azzopardi told Malta Today following his release.
Daphne Caruana Galizia had reported extensively on fuel smuggling in Malta, even naming the men who have been charged in several blog posts.
2. The Daphne Caruana Galizia investigation
Azzopardi is intimately tied to the investigation into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. He served as the lawyer of Vince ‘Il-Kohhu’ Muscat, one of the men charged with carrying out the murder.
He became Muscat’s client in July 2019, but dumped him by the end of October, just as Malta’s police were gearing up for the arrests of middleman Melvin Theuma and main suspect Yorgen Fenech. It was never disclosed why Azzopardi dropped Muscat.
Over the three months, Azzopardi worked extensively in bargaining for a plea for Muscat. Azzopardi has confirmed that on 9th October, former Police Commissioner Lawrence told him that Muscat’s testimony was hearsay and he would not be granted a pardon.
Azzopardi has revealed that he had also been approached by then-justice minister Owen Bonnici during a funeral over the same period. Bonnici told him that authorities could only provide one pardon in the case, he said.
Lovin Malta had revealed that a copy of Muscat’s plea bargain somehow ended up in the hands of Johann Cremona, Fenech’s business partner, who in turn passed on the document to Theuma.
Recordings that have been played behind closed doors reportedly feature Cremona informing Theuma that Muscat turned down a 30-year plea bargain and was ready to recant his previous statements to police.
Muscat had already named Theuma as the middleman in the case, and made references to several key players in other major crimes, including an infamous HSBC heist, to investigators. Azzopardi is also allegedly named several times in tapes. However, it is still unclear in what context.
Azzopardi has described a sense of fear while representing Muscat, revealing that he was placed under police protection during that period.
3. Representing Adrian Delia
Azzopardi was first thrust into the national political spotlight when he represented Adrian Delia when the then-PN leadership candidate filed several libel suits against Caruana Galizia.
Caruana Galizia had claimed that Delia was involved in a money-laundering operation from a Soho prostitution ring. The libel suits continued right up until her assassination.
Azzopardi was a PN member at the time and strong supporter of Delia. He had turned down the Nationalist Party’s requests to contest the general elections on its ticket in 2008 and 2017.
4. Freemason past
Azzopardi’s time as Delia’s lawyer put him under intense scrutiny. Eventually, his ties to freemasonry were laid bare following a publication by Lovin Malta.
He revealed he was a freemason for around three years, between 2009 and 2011, but was kicked out after he wanted it to reform its secrecy rules.
Azzopardi didn’t say which lodge he was a part of, although his expulsion letter showed he was part of the Grand Lodge of Malta, a splinter Grand Lodge which broke away from the Sovereign Grand Lodge of Malta in 2009.
One of the co-founders of the Grand Lodge was David Gatt, a policeman turned lawyer who was cleared of involvement in a string of armed robberies, including a €1 million heist from the HSBC branch in Balzan back in 2007. Gatt has been referenced in the Caruana Galizia case and has links to former minister Chris Cardona.
Azzopardi said he never saw politicians, magistrates or judges at the meetings, but admitted to seeing several businessmen there. The group meetings were small – no more than 15 people would attend a meeting, all of whom were men.
Azzopardi was removed from the PN’s members’ list following the reveal.
5. A ministerial shooting
Before branching out to form his legal firm, Azzopardi worked at the law firm of Labour MP and former home affairs minister Manuel Mallia.
His claim to notoriety during that period is linked to Mallia’s sensational resignation after his driver Paul Sheehan was involved in a shooting incident. Indeed, he was the lawyer Mallia’s driver Paul Sheehan called up in 2014 to give a police statement on the matter.
Sheehan was handed a sentence of 22 months in prison, suspended for three years by Magistrate Rachel Montebello.
Sheehan had originally been accused of the attempted murder of motorist Stephen Smith, who had clipped the parked ministerial BMW Sheehan had been in charge of, on 19th November 2014. The off-duty policeman had pulled out his sidearm and fired shots into the retreating vehicle.
Allegations of a police cover-up and the ensuing scandal had led to Mallia’s resignation.
Azzopardi still remains under police bail and investigations will continue, from authorities and journalists alike, even if the courts are censoring publication of names.
He’s a man who has never strayed too far from controversy. With the extent of a smuggling ring yet to be revealed, he could be in the news for the months ahead.
What do you think of Azzopardi’s links to the case? Comment below