Updated 4.30pm with minister's reaction below - A bureau set up to locate and confiscate criminal assets remained idle for close to three years, parliamentary questions show.
In reply to a series of parliamentary questions by Nationalist Party MP Claudio Grech, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici admitted that the Asset Recovery Bureau, which was set up on paper in October 2015, only became active in August this year.
The seizure of criminal assets is seen as vital in the fight against organised crime. Dr Bonnici said in his reply that the bureau had spent this year building up its directorate and training its officials.
Previous statistics provided to Parliament show that only €197,000 in cash, 12 vehicles and two boats were confiscated by the Asset Management Unit over a five-year period between 2012 and 2016, which preceded the Asset Recovery Bureau.
In comments to the Times of Malta, Mr Grech said his pursuit of the topic over the years and the weak responses given by the responsible ministers clearly showed the weak progress being made.
Mr Grech said the “pathetic amount” of criminal assets recovered over the years was a joke. “In effect, it is an affront to victims of crime and all those that have the common good at heart,” he said.
Pointing towards NSO statistics conservatively estimating the shadow economy’s worth at €300 million, Mr Grech said it beggared belief that it took three years for the Asset Recovery Bureau to begin operating in August of this year, with absolutely no assets recovered.
He said this clearly showed the state of social degeneration, with people looking the other way as long as the money was coming in.
Freezing orders by the courts are now being handled by the bureau, whose primary stated objective is to develop and facilitate techniques used in the identification and tracing of assets to increase confiscations.
Former FIAU director Manfred Galdes told an anti-money laundering conference in February that asset tracing in Malta merely involved sending a notification to banks and other financial institutions asking for a list of a person’s assets.
The Asset Recovery Bureau was set up just a few months before an inspection by the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering committee of experts, known as Moneyval.
Minister reacts - Structure created out of nothing to strengthen rule of law
In a reaction to the above story, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici told Labour MP Byron Camilleri in reply to a parliamentary question on Tuesday afternoon that in setting up this bureau, this government had done what previous governments had not.
The role of the bureau, he said, was to ensure that crime did not pay. It needed to ensure, for example, that a thief who stole a million euro from the bank and was jailed, was not able to enjoy the fruit of his crime once he came out of prison. Unless that million was seized, crime would pay.
Dr Bonnici said that while very little was done in the past, despite an obvious need, the present government grabbed the bull by the horns and created a structure out of nothing.
That included the legislative process followed by the administrative structure including the appointment of a board headed by a retired judge and the recruitment and training of staff after calls for application.
Dr Bonnici said he was pleased to note that no one had criticised the process, simply because there was nothing to criticise. Still, such matters took time, but better to take time and do things well, especially in the justice sector.
This, he said, had been a set in the right direction to strengthen the rule of law.