The former prime minister's chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and directors of his various companies have taken legal action over a court order freezing the the assets of dozens of businesses and individuals.

Schembri and 22 people or companies, along with their relatives filed an application on Friday before the Constitutional Court, claiming breaches of their fundamental human rights. 

They are claiming that the action ordered against them was in breach of their rights to a fair hearing and to the enjoyment of their property as well as their right not to be punished without a conviction.

Firms belonging to Schembri had their assets frozen last week after a court issued an attachment order to that effect.

The order listed 91 people and companies, including Schembri and his accountants at Nexia BT, Brian Tonna, Karl Cini and Manuel Castagna. It ordered the freeze on suspicion of money-laundering offences.

All four people were arrested following the conclusion of an inquiry into financial crimes and released after some 20 hours under arrest. Schembri remains on police bail. 

Through their lawyers Edward Gatt and Mark Vassallo, Schembri and the company directors argued that the law itself was breaching their rights because it did not give them the legal remedy to fight the investigation order issued against them.

They explained that the investigation order is only issued by the court submissions from the Attorney General, explaining why the order is required. However, the person affected by the order is not given the right to have their voice heard and this is a basic right guarantee through the right to a fair hearing by an independent and impartial court.

The lawyers said it was “inconceivable” that there is no such legal remedy which, however, exists in the next article of the same Prevention of Money Laundering Act but which is only reserved for anyone who is actually accused in court and has his assets frozen. If still under investigation, the law does not give the person the right to fight it.

Furthermore, they noted that the investigation order was issued on the strength of a magisterial inquiry over €100,000 worth of alleged kickbacks on the sale of passports.

The action which froze so many people’s assets, worth much more than the sum, as well as the wages of some 80 employees, was “disproportionate”. 

They also argued that by freezing their assets at a stage when there is still a pending investigation was subjecting them to a punishment without a conviction.

Some 78 employees in companies in which Schembri has a business interest have filed separate proceedings to unfreeze their wages. There is also a similar but separate court case filed by six companies owned by Schembri, asking for permission to temporarily have access to their assets to pay the salaries to their employees.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us