Welcome to Malta, where saving lives is a crime, but fuel smuggling isn’t

The captain of the MV Lifeline was taken to court on Monday because the vessel that rescued 234 people at sea was not registered to save lives.

Captain Claus Peter Reisch, a 57-year old German national, was set up as an example of a hard-line policy that Malta is keen to implement in efforts to outdo the antics of Italy’s populist interior minister Matteo Salvini.

Reisch was accused of having steered the ship within Maltese territorial waters without the necessary registration and licence.

Compare this with the lack of willingness shown by the Maltese authorities to bring charges against those using vessels to smuggle Libyan fuel to Europe. This is an illicit business that is estimated to have generated millions for the Maltese involved as well as their business partners – Libyan militias and the Sicilian mafia.

The vessels used for this illegal trade were not registered to smuggle diesel. No vessel can ever be registered for such purposes  – many of the vessels used are registered as fishing vessels. So by the same token, why doesn’t the Maltese government round up all these people and take them to court?

It is the inaction of these same authorities that is putting Mediterranean security at risk: the Libyan militias keep getting stronger and stand in the way of a free and democratic Libya.

They actively trade in diesel, oil, weapons and people out of Libya, ensuring money, power and influence. They have created a slave market within Libya for people of Sub-Saharan origin and are happy to send people out to sea on rubber boats in the direction of a sure death, were it not, in some cases, for vessels like the MV Lifeline to save them.

The lack of action by the Maltese government on this illicit trade has helped strengthen those who profit from human trafficking. Then, the Prime Minister accuses NGO rescue vessels of helping traffickers, without any sense of irony.

Now, the ship’s captain was paraded before our courts to make it known that Malta won’t tolerate a breach of its laws. What a joke!

MV Lifeline captain

In October 2017, a few days after the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Italian police arrested two Maltese on smuggling charges – Darren Debono and Gordon Debono – together with other Libyan and Sicilian individuals who ran a complex oil and diesel smuggling operation between Libya, Malta and Sicily. The Italian prosecutor of the case lamented at the time of the arrest that the Maltese authorities were too slow to act. The government promptly issued a denial.

In February, the business operations of the Debonos were hit by sanctions from the US authorities. Scoglitti – a fish restaurant in Valletta – was among the businesses hit. Yet it was fully operational again within a few weeks, with the same staff and the same mobile number for reservations.

More than eight months have passed since the Debonos’ arrest, yet no known action was taken by the Maltese authorities. A search on the FIAU’s web site – Malta’s anti-money laundering agency – shows that no order was issued by the courts in Malta to freeze the assets of these individuals since the date of their arrest in October 2017.

Read more: NGOs are doing what the EU is unwilling to do

On the other hand, it has taken the Maltese police force less than 24 hours to decide that the MV Lifeline’s captain deserved to be charged.

If the government were truly committed to the rule of law and wanted to play its part in addressing migration, then the focus should be on the Libyan militias – who control the people smuggling business – and their associates, including the Maltese reaping profits from illegal trade.

The rest is just political posturing that is creating unnecessary victims.


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