Four Libyans charged with money laundering and tax evasion amounting to more than €20 million were leaving and entering the country with cash linked to the purchase of luxury cars, jewellery and branded clothing, among other goods.

Most of the money was being taken to Turkey, a court heard on Tuesday.

In November, the police said they had seized two luxurious vehicles, €100,000 in cash, a considerable amount of jewellery and branded clothing, foreign number plates, and electronic equipment, which includes mobile phones and computers.

The investigations were carried out in coordination with a number of foreign jurisdictions, including the US, the UK, Italy and Europol. 

Money had started to be moved between Malta and Turkey in 2010 with the operation expanding in 2019. A total €18.5 million were declared to customs for the purchase of rice, chicken legs and infant formula.

Those charged in court included Hesham Zayed, a 45-year-old contractor who lives in Ħamrun, Essam Mohamed Edernawi, 48, who is self-employed,  Khaled Baely, Hdidan Tamer Ramadan Ali and five companies represented by Zayed, PHF Ltd, UGT Company Ltd, Express Route Company Ltd, HZ Medical Equipment and Health Services Company Ltd and H&H Investments Ltd.

Police inspector Keith Mullen testified that the police had received information that several Maltese citizens of Arab origin had been declaring substantial amounts of cash at Malta International Airport customs with initial investigations indicating that the people they had been tipped about were not members of the same group.

Separate investigations were carried out into the people declaring cash in the name of Hesham Zayed and into companies in which Zayed was specifically involved.

Mullen testified that Zayed had first declared cash in 2012. No declarations were made in his name between 2014 and 2017 but more declarations were then made with one being of more than a million euros.

Mullen said Tamer had declared €27,600 on arrival from Libya in 2017, ostensibly to buy a car, while Baeley had been arrested in Spain with €250,430 in undeclared cash in 2018. Zayed had started to reduce the amounts of cash he was transporting and Baeley and Ramadan Ali Hdidan came into the picture.

Mullen testified that other persons also seemed to be involved in the operation. These included Omar Azumi from Malta, who lives in Manchester, and Murad Ali Al Forgani and Elhadi Mohammed El Wohashi.

Zayed had approached the police himself to explain that the money belonged to him and was supposed to be transported to the UK as initial capital for a company he had opened there with Azumi, called FX ad Payments Ltd.

Zayed had told the inspector that Libyans encountered moving money in the normal banking system so the hawala transfer system was used, a money transfer without money movement used in the western world.

By February 17, around €20.7 million in cash had been declared with Maltese Customs.

Lawyers Franco Debono, Arthur Azzopardi, Mario Buttigieg, Mario Mifsud and Christian Camilleri are appearing for the accused.

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