George Tabone used to run a successful jewellery business. Then the police came knocking, and it all came crumbling down. By the time he cleared his name six years later, Tabone had lost control of his business and ended up in a minimum-wage job.

His story illustrates the challenges of Malta’s existing asset freezing laws, and why the government has said it wants to change them. The bill was passed from second reading on Monday.

Interview with George Tabone. Video: Karl Andrew Micallef

Tabone, known for being the face of Gram Collections, had all his assets frozen after he was accused of accepting almost half a million euros worth of stolen jewellery in 2013. His assets were frozen until 2019 when his acquittal was confirmed on appeal. 

As the law stands, a court-ordered asset freeze applies to all of the person’s assets, even those they had before the alleged crime was committed. Asset freezes also cap a person’s annual income to €13,976, an annual amount established almost 30 years ago.

Tabone believes the law is unjust.

“If you inherited money from your family or, for example, they gave you some money, that is also frozen,” he said. “When someone is accused of a one-off offence, and you freeze all their assets and money they received throughout their life, that is draconian and far-fetched.”

For a man like Tabone, the pressures of that asset freeze along with the strain that media attention placed on his family and young children, was tough to handle. “Many people were broken because of it (the law).”

When new owners took over Tabone’s company, they kept him on as a consultant. But the legal spending limits he was subject to meant he only earned a fraction of what he used to.

“I had to be a consultant on minimum wage,” Tabone said.  “I believe this goes against fundamental human rights because it’s saying that for as long as you are accused, you cannot use your talents to earn as much money as you want,” he argued. 

Even now, banks refuse to work with him despite his court acquittal, he said.

The former jeweller is a strong proponent of the changes that the government intends to make to the existing law. Announced at the end of last month, the new law seeks to limit the assets that can be frozen to be proportionate to the crime that a person is accused of.

The court will be able to allow an accused person to go on with their legitimate business dealings

Furthermore, the revised law will allow people who are subject to asset freezes to earn the median wage while facing court proceedings, rather than the €14,000 annual limit in place.

The court will also be able to allow an accused person to go on with their legitimate business dealings. 

The new law also seeks to streamline court procedures for those seeking permission to use frozen assets for recurring expenses.

Currently, an accused person who needs to free up money to pay for things like insurance premiums or school fees must file a court application each time they need to access their frozen assets.

Under the new law, applicants who need such exemptions will be able to petition the court just once.

Justice Minister Jonathan Attard insisted last week that it was "ridiculous" and "without basis" for anyone to suggest ulterior motives behind the government's decision to rush new legislation that will see freezing orders imposed by the courts limited to the amount suspected to have been defrauded. 

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

Support Us