Updated at 3.17pm with President's reaction
There has “never been legal proof” of wrongdoing by Pilatus Bank, President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca told an Oxford Union audience earlier this month.
Malta’s head of state was speaking to the prestigious student society during an hour-long session in which she touched upon a variety of issues ranging from social justice to gender quotas and the importance of media education to curb the spread of fake news.
It was her reply to the very first question from her audience, however, which pricked up ears.
Had Malta learnt any lessons from the Pilatus Bank scandal, President Coleiro Preca was asked.
The President, who is coming to the end of her tenure, did not seem to be in a reflective mood.
“Pilatus Bank is closed,” she replied. “As yet, there has never been legal proof of what Pilatus Bank was doing.”
The @presidentMT really ought to rectify or withdraw her embarrassingly incorrect statement. #PilatusBank had its licence revoked, its owner risking 125 years in a US jail, and the FIAU found in breach of EU law by #EBA for failing to act. What else do you need? https://t.co/HsYCy7Wlvw— Simon Busuttil (@SimonBusuttil) February 20, 2019
She told the audience that the disgraced bank did not form part of a case before the US courts against the bank’s former chairman, Ali Sadr Hasheminejad.
Mr Hasheminejad stands accused of having funnelled more than $115 million from Venezuela through the US, evading sanctions.
Pilatus Bank had its banking licence taken away by the European Central Bank late last year, some months after it had been placed into administration following its chairman’s arrest.
The bank came under scrutiny following the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had alleged that the bank was being used to hide millions in dirty money.
It had already been flagged by Malta’s Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit back in 2016, when a report had cited a number of shortcomings in its anti-money laundering provisions.
A follow-up report by the FIAU had concluded that those shortcomings “no longer subsisted”.
Nevertheless, the European Banking Authority found “general and systematic shortcomings” in the bank’s application of AML directives.
The bank’s directors have vehemently contested the decision to shut down the bank, saying that it was the victim of a “witch-hunt” by “racist” politicians and suing Malta’s financial regulator, the MFSA, for having acted in bad faith and beyond its powers when closing the bank down.
Remarks 'taken out of context' - President's Office
In a statement issued on Wednesday afternoon, the Office of the President said that President Coleiro Preca's comments had been taken "completely out of context to create sensationalism".
The President's remark about there being "no legal proof of what Pilatus Bank was doing" referred to evidence in court, since the case against the bank's chairman was still pending, her office said.
No further legal proceedings against the bank were under way in Malta, it added.
In other parts of her speech, the President spoke about a range of other issues.
On Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder: One of the saddest moments in our recent history. The evidence of how this horrendous act has been taken seriously is that the government involved the Dutch and Finnish [security services], FBI and Scotland Yard. Investigations will continue until we find the person or persons who commissioned the crime.
On populism in Europe: Populists thrive on fear, and everything that goes wrong is blamed on migrants. We need strong leaders, and that is why I am urging you to be the strong leaders of tomorrow.
On female politicians: I would love to see more women in parliament. Now there is the political will to address that. Quotas will help with that transition. They work.
On reproductive rights: I can’t understand how the issue of an embryo is a woman’s right, because if I neglect my daughter, the State will intervene. It won’t say ‘it’s her daughter, it’s her right’. But I respect other people’s opinions on this.
On fake news and hate speech: Fake news has become the order of the day. This is abuse.
Abuse does not feature at all in our fundamental freedoms. We need media education.
On human rights: Human rights have no borders. It took the European Union – the champion of human rights – three weeks to decide on 49 people, including children.
On social justice: I believe in empowerment, not handouts. Once I leave office I will probably stay in the social sector as I’ve been all my life.
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