- Police failed to get 17 Black evidence from Dubai after botched request
- Evidence sought eight months after police received 17 Black intelligence from FIAU
- Dubai FIU chief willing to supply 'evidence'
Daphne Caruana Galizia murder suspect Yorgen Fenech walked away from 17 Black with two cheques worth €1.5 million, aided by a “stalled” magisterial inquiry and a botched attempt by the police’s economic crimes unit to obtain information from Dubai about the mystery company's activities.
Investigators from the unit had been reluctant to further any probe into Mr Fenech and top government officials prior to obtaining official documentary evidence from the United Arab Emirates linking the business magnate to 17 Black.
Two sources familiar with the 17 Black probe told Times of Malta a request for information sent to the UAE by the police, via the magisterial inquiry, was never taken seriously by the Dubai authorities.
The source said “incorrect” banking information listed by the police in the request sent on December 18, 2018, likely meant the UAE authorities dismissed it as a “fishing expedition”.
This “incorrect” information would have made it even harder to obtain cooperation from a jurisdiction notorious for its financial secrecy.
Meanwhile, images of the two cheques leaked to the Daphne Project, which is coordinated by French NGO Forbidden Stories, show Noor Bank closed Mr Fenech’s accounts last April.
This is the first time documentary evidence showing Mr Fenech's link to 17 Black is being published.
Mr Fenech's lawyer did not respond to a request for comment about the cheques.
The funds held by 17 Black were frozen on Noor Bank’s own initiative in September 2018.
They were eventually unblocked as no law enforcement or judicial action was sparked in Dubai on the strength of an official request by the Maltese authorities.
Times of Malta and Reuters named Mr Fenech as 17 Black’s owner in November 2018.
A leaked e-mail published by the Daphne Project in April 2018 indicated plans by the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff Keith Schembri and former Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi to receive up to $2 million from 17 Black via offshore companies in Panama.
Dubai awaits official ‘freeze instructions’ from Malta
Ali Faisal Ba'Alawi, the acting head of United Arab Emirates’ Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), told Reuters the cheques given to Mr Fenech had not yet been cashed.
“The cheques you have a copy of, are manager cheques, meaning the accounts have been closed because the customer is deemed to be of a high risk and beyond the bank’s risk appetite or threshold.”
He added: “I can confirm these cheques have not been deposited anywhere so everything remains as is.”
He told Reuters that if a “freeze instruction” was received from Malta through correct channels the funds could also be blocked. “So, the funds are still around so nothing will be happening with those amounts.”
Such instructions would have to be issued via an international freezing order by the Attorney General through the courts.
Request sent eight months after intelligence report
Intelligence about 17 Black was supplied to the FIAU by its counterparts in Dubai.
The intelligence was then passed on to the police in spring 2018 as part of a report delving into the energy projects overseen by Konrad Mizzi.
Financial intelligence contained in FIAU reports cannot be used as evidence in court.
The magisterial inquiry requested by the economic crimes unit on the basis of the FIAU report eventually “stalled” as police investigators never received any official information from the UAE.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had repeatedly used the “stalled” inquiry, which was heading towards an inconclusive final report, to delay any action against Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.
Economic crimes unit chief Ian Abdilla did not respond to a request for comment by Times of Malta about the failed attempt to obtain documentary evidence from Dubai.
Inquiry brought back to life
Over the past weeks, the fledgling 17 Black inquiry has gained fresh impetus, particularly after the high-profile prosecution of Mr Fenech on charges that he ordered the assassination of Ms Caruana Galizia.
The journalist first named 17 Black in a blog post in February 2017.
The following month, 17 Black’s name was changed to Wings Development Limited.
Documents seized during searches of Mr Fenech’s property are believed to have offered further evidence of his link to 17 Black.
The UAE has pledged to help take the case forward by providing all the necessary information about 17 Black.
Mr Ba'Alawi said his FIU, as the owner of the intelligence on 17 Black, could and would give full permission to Malta to use it as evidence for a police investigation or court.
“All information shared by FIU channels should only be used for intelligence purposes. However, if there was any judicial procedure or formal case that needs to be opened, they need to first get consent from the FIU they got information from to use that information in court or further investigation.
In our case, if that consent is sought, we provide that consent,” he told Reuters.
Abdilla ‘exchanged information with Schembri’
Malta’s chief economic crimes investigator Ian Abdilla has been accused of protecting top government officials and actively communicating and exchanging information with Keith Schembri.
Testifying during the public inquiry into Ms Caruana Galizia’s assassination, her son Matthew had stiff words about the police’s failure to properly investigate 17 Black and the Panama Papers.
“If my mother was murdered to prevent her from publishing evidence that was already in the hands of, or that would have eventually come into the hands of, Ian Abdilla and the FIAU, then Fenech must have been absolutely certain that Ian Abdilla would never press charges against him, or even conduct a full investigation, based on that same evidence,” Mr Caruana Galizia said.
The assassinated journalist’s son said the economic crimes chief might argue there was not enough evidence to press charges.
“Yet, why [is] evidence that’s damning enough for the suspect to commit murder not be damning enough for the police to press charges,” he questioned.
Mr Abdilla was invited by Times of Malta to comment on Thursday about the accusations levelled against him, but no reply was received by the time of publication.
Timeline of events:
Spring 2018 - Police are handed an intelligence report naming Yorgen Fenech as 17 Black's owner.
November 2018 - Reuters and Times of Malta confirm the business mogul's ownership of the company.
December 2018 - The economic crimes unit sends a request for information to the UAE, where the shell company 17 Black is based. Little else is done to take the investigation forward.
November 2019 - Keith Schembri uses the "stalled" inquiry as an excuse not to testify about 17 Black in a libel case. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat says he cannot comment about 17 Black due to the ongoing inquiry. A few days later, Yorgen Fenech is arrested and charged with complicity in Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder.
December 2019 - UAE financial intelligence unit chief states his FIU could and would give permission to Malta to use its intelligence on 17 Black for a police investigation or in court.