Maltese national Paul Attard has been acquitted of major drug trafficking charges in an Italian court.
Attard, a 43-year-old shipper, was extradited to Italy to face the major charges before a court in Catania. On Tuesday, he was acquitted after the prosecution failed to prove that he was the owner of the vessel.
Attard was alleged to have been involved in a plot to traffic ten tonnes of hashish found onboard a fishing vessel, The Quest.
However, he successfully argued that although the vessel was used by his shipping company, he did not actually own the boat.
He also argued that since the search of the vessel happened on the open seas, the Italian authorities had no jurisdiction over the matter.
The incident dates to 2018 when the vessel was intercepted by Italian authorities in international waters between Malta and Algeria, carrying a load of drugs that were allegedly discovered inside the vessel’s cold room.
That same year a report by Daphne Project partners La Repubblica blew the lid on how Italy’s Guardia di Finanza had pinpointed Malta as being at the centre of illicit smuggling across the Mediterranean.
The report was based on rafts of classified documents and Italian police intelligence, documenting a dozen major smuggling busts in the last decade run by Maltese citizens and transacted just off Malta's shores or supported by Maltese shipyards that service vessels used in international maritime crime.
A particular wharf at the far end of the Grand Harbour, Il-Moll tal-Pont, was described as "a thread through the tapestry" of illegal trafficking activities in the Mediterranean, spreading from Morocco to Cyprus.
The Quest had been linked to this wharf.
A long legal road
The year after Attard was arrested, a magistrate's court in Malta rejected a request to extradite him to Italy.
A fresh EAW was issued in September 2021 and was once again turned down by another magistrate presiding over the proceedings.
However, following an appeal by the Attorney General the case was sent back before a different magistrate, who greenlighted Attard’s extradition to Italy.
That decision was confirmed on appeal in December 2021, prompting Attard’s lawyers to institute two separate constitutional cases challenging the judgment on two grounds.
Lawyers Franco Debono, Josè Herrera and Arthur Azzopardi appeared for Attard in Malta. In Italy, he was represented by Michele Sbezzi.
His Maltese legal team is now arguing for the European Arrest Warrant to be removed altogether.