A unit set up in 2015 to trace and recover the proceeds of organised crime has not become operational, this newspaper is told.

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici described the establishment of the Asset Recovery Bureau as another important step in the fight against organised crime.

The confiscation and recovery of proceeds from crime is seen as vital by the European Union, because it serves as a deterrent by depriving criminals of their assets.

A 2014 EU directive recommended setting up such units, saying member states had to adequately manage frozen assets so they would not lose value before their eventual confiscation.

A 2015 legal notice paved the way for establishing the bureau, which is meant to take over the asset-tracing functions presently being carried out by the courts.

The EU sees confiscation as a vital deterrent: it deprives criminals of their assets

In its last assessment of Malta’s anti-money-laundering legislation in 2012, the Council of Europe’s Moneyval committee questioned the adequacy and effectiveness of this function being carried out by court experts. This led to the setting up of an asset management unit within the courts, which was tasked with tracking down the ill-gotten gains of criminals.

The functions of this unit were meant to be transferred to the bureau after a board appointment in November 2015. The board comprised representatives of the police, Inland Revenue Department, courts and the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit.

However, little else is known to have been done to get the bureau off the ground since the appointment of what government sources described as a “temporary board”. The present board is headed by Courts of Justice director general Frankie Mercieca.

Renewed efforts are expected to be made by the government to get the Asset Recovery Bureau off the ground, as Moneyval is set to conduct the next assessment of Malta’s anti-money-laundering laws in 2018. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry said the interim board was responsible for setting up the bureau and drawing up the policies to be adopted.

Its work was in progress and new long-term appointments would be made soon, he added.

The bureau’s regulations would come into force once the groundwork was fully established, the spokesman pointed out.