The EU's justice commissioner expressed “surprise” that Malta has frozen only low amounts of Russian-owned assets following the enforcement of sanctions.

Didier Reynders noted on Thursday that Malta had only frozen some €220,000 in Russian-owned assets as part of efforts to hold the Russian state accountable for the invasion of Ukraine.

The commissioner said he would be following up with the Maltese government to understand why the figure was so low.

Reynders was speaking during a meeting with Maltese MPs at the Foreign and EU Affairs committee in parliament, in which the enforcement of Russian sanctions, as well as the rule of law and press freedom were discussed. 

The commissioner said he would bring up the possibility of Malta working with other member states to help freeze Russian assets locally, but stressed the importance of keeping open channels of information. 

The next step is to focus on enforcing sanctions and proposing legislation that would criminalise efforts to bypass them, he added. 

“The goal of documenting war crimes is to bring the perpetrators to justice. Russia will pay for the reconstruction of Ukraine and it will be important to find a way to fund compensation and reconstruction efforts,” he said. 

Reynders said he will make efforts to organise another country visit and include meetings with civil society groups ahead of a follow-up report on the state of rule of law expected in July. 

Transform discussion into effective legislation

Following the recommendations from the inquiry into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, Reynders welcomed legislative efforts to improve the media landscape and working environment for journalists, but that it was important to find a way forward to transform discussion into effective legislation. 

Former justice minister Edward Zammit Lewis thanked the commissioner for his “fairness” towards Malta when acknowledging the progress the country has made in issues of rule of law and media pluralism. 

Malta has since promulgated numerous laws that have advanced the rule of law, but was working on having more effective action from institutions, he said. The country is also in the process of pushing forward several initiatives through legislation to enhance media freedom. 

PN MP Mario de Marco said that while it was clear that Malta had achieved progress in this regard, there is still more to be done. 

The autonomy and proper function of the police force is the country’s most pressing issue that must be addressed, he said, and not enough effort has been made to ensure the police force does not simply serve as an extension to the executive. 

It was disappointing to see that in the fight against corruption, it appears that police chase after low-level cases, while cases of high-level corruption are not investigated as one would expect them to be. 

De Marco also questioned whether it was wise to allow judges and magistrates to be appointed to government positions following their retirement, with fears that this could undermine their autonomy while they still sit on the bench.

Independent media organisations, de Marco added, are also facing tremendous financial pressure and while he agrees with government aid to support their independence, he warned of the dangers of becoming dependent on government advertising which could pose on editorial independence. 

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