A man murdered outside a cafe in Paceville was stabbed 28 times in a brawl that lasted just two minutes and was triggered by a row over earnings from prostitution, a court has heard. 

Joseff Rivas, a suspected Romanian organised crime group member, had been sent to kill the three men who eventually allegedly murdered him, they told police.

Three Romanian men have been accused of his murder - Ilie Constantin, 31 and his cousins, brothers Ionut Iulian Tanase, 35, and Dan-Andrei Tanase, 32 - and deny the charges.

Police inspector Kurt Zahra described them as "pimps" when he testified about the case in court on Thursday. 

He said Rivas had arrived in Malta on December 2, three days before the murder.

He was accompanied by two others, who left the country on the evening of the attack, which happened at 3.30pm on Ross Street. 

Times of Malta previously reported that Rivas, who held both Romanian and British citizenship, was identified as a 'High-Value Target' by international intelligence services.

A previous hearing heard that CCTV showed three men in a cafe on the street when another three men approached them.

The footage showed a "few seconds" of communication followed by commotion involving the victim.

Timeline of a two-minute murder

On Thursday, Inspector Zahra drew up a timeline of the sequence of events. He said the three accused went to Big Gs Bar in St Julian's at 3.15pm where they drank tea or coffee.

Seven minutes later, three "big guys" from the opposite group, including Rivas, crossed the street and headed to the bar.  

At about 3.23pm , one of the accused, Dan-Andrei Tanase, shook hands with one of the approaching men before "commotion erupted" two minutes later. 

The rival group, including Rivas, were pushed back and a brawl broke out. One person grabbed a stool and some signage to use in the fight. It was over in a maximum of two minutes, Zahra told the court.   

He said the fight was triggered by some dispute over the way prostitution money was to be shared between the three accused and a certain man called Rasvan.

The accused told police that they had acquired information from a third party - whom Constantin had met "a couple of days before" at Pender Gardens - that Rasvan had sent people to kill them.

The accused, two brothers and their cousin, told police that this Rasvan had sent people to Malta to kill them. 

Ionut Iulian Tanase and his cousin had armed themselves with knives bought from a souvenir shop nearby. They said they were afraid, describing Rivas as "big guy."

Row over earnings from prostitution

The accused were pimps. 

They took 50% of the earnings and out of that money, passed on half to this Rasvan. 

Bookings by clients were made with Rasvan's mother or wife in Romania. 

Once the client called for sexual services, the information was passed on to those handling the bookings. So Rasvan knew exactly how many clients had called and also the earnings day by day. 

That arrangement bothered the accused who decided to keep the money for themselves. 

After the fight, the other two "big guys" accompanying Rivas fled the scene. 

Asked by defence lawyer Arthur Azzopardi about their whereabouts, inspector Zahra said that the men had left the country that same night after the fight. 

The accused were meant to leave Malta on December 16, with bookings effected by their relatives, Azzopardi said. 

Asked by defence lawyer Franco Debono, Zahra confirmed that it was Rivas' group who first approached the accused. 

"Was it the other group who started the fight?" asked Debono. 

Although the accused said so, footage from the crime scene appeared to indicate that both groups clashed. 

But the inspector also confirmed that compared to the "average statured" accused, the other men were "big guys."

Sufficient evidence to stand trial

At the end of Thursday's sitting, Magistrate Nadine Lia declared that there was sufficient prima facie evidence for all three to stand trial on indictment. The case continues in January.

AG lawyers Kaylie Bonnett and Darlene Grima, assisted Inspectors Kurt Zahra and Brian Xuereb as prosecutors. 

Lawyers Arthur Azzopardi, Franco Debono, Jacob Magri and Charmaine Cherrett were defence counsel.

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