Last updated 6pm with reaction by Daphne Caruana Galizia's sons

Pilatus Bank whistleblower Maria Efimova will not be extradited to Malta because of concerns about her safety, an Athens court ruled on Thursday.

The decision follows appeals by MEPs who had warned about her safety should she be brought back to Malta. 

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in an initial reaction said the decision did not reflect a lack of trust in Malta. He also pointed out that the extradition request was made by the Maltese courts, independently of the government. 

Daphne Caruana Galizia's sons said the decision was an indictment of Malta’s collapsing rule of law.

Ms Efimova was one of the sources used by journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia when she claimed that the prime minister’s wife was the ultimate beneficiary of proceeds in Egrant Inc, a secret Panama company.

Ms Caruana Galizia had published Ms Efimova’s account, which included details about an alleged $1 million transfer to Egrant from Azerbaijan’s ruling family. The prime minister and Mrs Muscat immediately denied the claims.

Pilatus Bank sued her for fraud, accusing her of using some €2,000 of company money without authorisation to pay for her husband and children’s airline tickets to Germany and Greece, and for her father-in-law to fly from Cyprus to Malta.

Ms Efimova denied the claim, insisting she had been authorised to use the money. She had herself previously sued Pilatus over unpaid wages.

READ: Police deny Pilatus whistleblower mistreatment

She fled Malta in June, saying she feared for her life following the Caruana Galizia car bomb murder and attempts to intimidate her family.

A European arrest warrant was issued at Malta's request after she missed two court appearances. She turned herself in at an Athens police station last month.

In November, Ms Efimova replied to questions by MEPs investigating the rule of law in Malta. She gave details about the Egrant case through a video conference from an unnamed location.

“She did not say anything new that was not already out in the media but she gave us documents and insisted that the Prime Minister’s wife [Michelle Muscat] is the owner of Egrant,” an MEP had told Times of Malta at the time.

Asked about the content of the documents, the MEP said that “these are currently being studied by the EP and mainly sustain her claims.” 
Her surrender in Athens happened on the same day the chairman of Pilatus Bank, Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad, was arrested in the United States on charges that he participated in a scheme to evade US sanctions and funnel more than $115 million. She worked as his private assistant from January to March 2016.

Soon after her arrest, a group of MEPs - who had formed the European Parliament delegation on the rule of law - wrote to the Greek authorities calling on them to protect Efimova and ensure she was not returned to Malta.

"Maria Efimova is a material witness in investigations on corruption and money laundering in Malta, involving Pilatus Bank and government members exposed by Panama Papers and Malta's FIU," the MEPs said.

Among those who signed the letter was socialist MEP Ana Gomes, chairman of the delegation, and Maltese MEP David Casa.

Mr Casa visited Ms Efimova in prison and also appeared before the Greek court which took the decision on the extradition request.

The court ordered Ms Efimova to be freed.

'Ruling has nothing to do with the lie about me' - Muscat

In an initial reaction, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat denied that the Greek court's decision reflected any type of mistrust in the courts, the police or rule of law in Malta.

He said that he could not comment on the contents of the court sentence since he had not yet seen it.

However, he insisted that the ruling “has nothing to do with the lie that was said about me” - a reference to the Egrant claims. 

Daphne's sons: Whistleblowers should be protected, not persecuted

Matthew, Andrew, and Paul Caruana Galizia in a statement welcomed the Greek court's decision but said it was also an indictment of Malta’s collapsing rule of law and its government's drive to persecute rather than protect whistleblowers.

"Maria Efimova is being targeted in a smear campaign led by the Maltese government. Stories have been spread in the media, falsely accusing her of being wanted in connection with our mother’s assassination. Ms Efimova’s decision to expose wrongdoing by her former employer in Malta, Pilatus Bank chairman Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad, who is now facing 125 years in a US jail for evading sanctions against Iran, and his corrupt links to Maltese government officials, was a bold and brave step. It put her at risk of assassination.

"Ms Efimova should be protected not only because it is her right, but also because it is the right thing to do. Instead, Malta has made her the country’s first political asylum seeker," they said.

"Whistleblowers play a critical role in ensuring a free and democratic society by revealing malfeasance, corruption, and crime. The risks of speaking out affect them and those closest to them, but the benefits of their speaking out benefit us all.

"Malta has done nothing to protect its most prominent whistleblowers, Maria Efimova and Jonathan Ferris, both of whom revealed crime and corruption at the highest level of the Maltese government. Whistleblowers should be protected. They should not be persecuted," the sons insisted. 

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