Former More supermarkets boss Ryan Schembri has been granted bail with a court saying he was never technically a criminal fugitive.
The head of the now defunct chain was extradited from Scotland and brought to Malta in May to face charges of fraud and money laundering estimated to be in the tens of millions of euros.
It had taken police nearly seven years to issue an international arrest warrant for him, despite a long list of people claiming he had run off with their money.
In a decree handed down on Friday, presiding magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech said Schembri can never be considered a “criminal fugitive” since there were no criminal proceedings nor investigations targeting him when he left Malta in 2014.
The decree was read out in open court when Schembri was escorted to face ongoing proceedings for alleged money laundering, fraud, making fraudulent gains, offering financial investment services without a licence and making use of forged documents.
Earlier this week, the court heard other creditors testify about how they lost their investments in Schembri’s business when he left the country in 2014, leaving behind a trail of disgruntled creditors.
On Friday morning, Schembri’s parents and partner testified, offering themselves as third-party guarantors, insisting that they would commit to every sacrifice to ensure that the accused got bail. After adjourning the hearing to ponder the issue, the court upheld the request.
Schembri’s lawyer on Friday exhibited documents showing that the accused had, since his extradition to Malta, stepped into civil proceedings instituted by a creditor against the former owner of the now-defunct More Supermarkets chain.
Curators representing the formerly missing debtor in those proceedings had approached his lawyer and Schembri subsequently assumed his role as party in the suit. That served as further proof of Schembri’s intentions, argued the lawyer.
The court took note of the previous conduct of the accused and the nature of the charges, as well as the fact that the prosecution declared that there was no further objection to his bail request on the basis of fear of tampering with evidence or witnesses.
The court observed that Schembri did not leave the country to escape the criminal process.
In fact, at the time, no proceedings had been instituted against him, nor had any criminal complaints yet been filed. And police investigations had not been triggered.
Criminal complaints against Schembri, the court said, had only been filed later.
So Schembri could “never be considered as a criminal fugitive”.
There was no doubt that “a responsible person would have stayed to face the music and stick with family,” observed the magistrate.
The police had information of his whereabouts in UK from their UK counterparts since 2017 and yet, for three years, they chose not to act. Nor did they attempt to question Schembri.
Objecting solely on the basis of the fear of Schembri absconding did not make legal sense. Such a fear would always subsist, even upon the lapse of the 20-month time limit after which the court has no option but to grant bail.
In light of such considerations, the court upheld the request under a number of strict conditions.
These include that Schembri is to appear for every court hearing and cannot travel abroad. Nor can he go within 100 metres of any airfield or coast.
He is to sign a bail book twice daily, morning and evening, not leave home between 7pm and 7am, and must deposit the sum of €50,000 and bind himself under a personal guarantee of a further €150,000.
Schembri was represented in court by lawyer Roberto Montalto.
Attorney general lawyer Francesco Refalo prosecuted.
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