Co-op man’s “smuggled fuel” ship will not be released

The Court of Appeal upheld a lower court’s refusal to release a fishing vessel that was allegedly used for smuggling fuel with its cargo of 34,600 liters of diesel, observing that it was designed to transfer fuel and not fish.

The Dimitra fishing vessel and its distinctly non-piscatorial cargo had been seized by customs in 2013 on suspicion of being used for smuggling fuel.

Paul Piscopo, owner of Dimitra Fishing Company, Mediterranean Samac Ltd and Sunoil Management Co Ltd, saw his Dimitra boat seized in July 2013 by customs officials. The operation led to the seizure of four ships with undeclared diesel on board. The Piscopo boat alone was carrying 34,600 liters of diesel, of which 8,000 liters were smuggled.

Piscopo is also president of the fishing cooperative Għaqda Koperattiva Sajjieda.

The owners of the Dimitra, Paul Piscopo and his wife Alexandra, subsequently filed a lawsuit demanding the release of the vessel and its cargo. This request was contested by the Director General of Customs who argued that the fuel had been found stored in plastic tanks on the ship under suspicious circumstances.

The vessel was stopped in the contiguous area of ​​Maltese maritime territory and there were indications that it was being used to regularly smuggle fuel without paying VAT or duties, he said.

When intercepted by the AFM, the vessel’s surveillance system (VMS) was turned off at sea, there was no fishing equipment on board, and her fishing license had expired. Instead, AFM personnel found eight full 1,000-liter plastic tanks of fuel for which the ship’s captain and crew had no explanation.

The Dimitra was escorted to the Grand Harbor for further investigation. Other plastic fuel tanks were found in the hold.

The Piscopos had argued that the Dimitra should be released, among other things, because fishing was their livelihood and the value of the allegedly untaxed fuel was disproportionate to the value of the vessel.

In 2017, the First Chamber of the Civil Court, chaired by Judge Silvio Meli, dismissed the request and ordered police to investigate the owners, saying “the resulting indications were that the company was involved in smuggling of petroleum products through the use of fishing boats.

The owners had filed an appeal, arguing among other things that the vessel was outside Maltese territorial waters at the time of its interception, that the VMS was malfunctioning and that no criminal proceedings had been brought against them by the police. was “inappropriate” for the court to order. In addition, the crew were charged with criminal offenses in connection with the incident and found not guilty, they said.

The Court of Appeal, chaired by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti, noted that the vessel had been intercepted 22 nautical miles off the coast of Malta, therefore within Maltese territorial waters. As she was flying the Maltese flag, Maltese authorities were allowed to board the ship anywhere.

Not all fuel found on board the MV Dimitra could have come from a source approved and legal by Maltese distributors, as diesel sold in Malta duty free must contain a Sudan marker and red dye. Both were missing.

A court-appointed expert said the vessel was configured to deliver diesel to third parties. “There was no sign of any recent fishing activity.”

The Court said that based on the evidence, the trial court was correct in concluding that the aircraft had been intentionally turned off by the captain.

He said the forfeiture action was well founded, the criminal proceedings against the captain were still pending and the seizure notes were found to be justified. “It is not true that this tribunal will allow the appellants’ requests to return the objects subject to the disputed seizure notes.”

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