At least two former Pilatus Bank officials will not be prosecuted despite a magistrate’s order, after Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg issued a nolle prosequi.
MaltaToday understands that the decision not to prosecute could be part of a deal requiring the two officials to testify against other high profile bank officials.
Rule of law NGO Repubblika has already hinted in an ongoing court case that Buttigieg issued the nolle prosequi in the summer of 2021 against former Pilatus advisor Mehmet Tasli and former chief risk officer Antoniella Gauci.
The names have not been officially confirmed and it is unclear whether other bank officials benefitted from the AG’s decision not to prosecute. The terms of the deal are also unclear.
However, legal sources have questioned the judiciousness of using the nolle prosequi route to secure testimony, especially after the bungle in the HSBC heist case when the AG entered into a plea deal with one of the accused, who later refused to testify against the co-accused.
Tasli and Gauci were in a list of seven subjects indicated in the Pilatus Bank inquiry as suspects over money laundering and other financial crimes. The inquiry by Magistrate Ian Farrugia into the now shuttered bank concluded in December 2020.
International arrest warrants against the foreign subjects were signed by the magistrate a couple of months later.
Farrugia had recommended criminal action against Pilatus Bank owner Ali Sadr Hasheminejad, bank operations supervisor Luis Rivera, director Ghambari Hamidreza, supervisor Mehmet Tasli, chief risk officer Antoniella Gauci, money laundering reporting officer Claudanne Sant-Fournier, and Pilatus Bank as an entity.
Only two charged
In September 2021, the police filed money laundering charges against Pilatus Bank as an entity and Sant-Fournier. The case against the two is ongoing.
But earlier this year former Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi stoked controversy when he revealed that Tasli had been in Malta to testify in a separate case just a month after police charged the bank and Sant-Fournier.
In an affidavit, Azzopardi said Tasli was cross-examined by two lawyers from the office of the AG and allowed to leave Malta despite an arrest warrant issued to his name.
“Not only did they not charge him, not only did they not order his arrest, but they asked him questions in court and let him leave as if nothing happened,” Azzopardi said in his affidavit.
At the time of Tasli’s appearance in court, nobody outside the AG’s office and the top brass at the police’s Financial Crimes Investigation Department, knew of the nolle prosequi issued on some of the Pilatus officials.
Additionally, the international and European arrest warrants signed by the investigating magistrate had not been actioned until January this year.
Judge orders AG, inspector to testify
The apparent reluctance by the police and AG not to prosecute all the people indicated in the Pilatus magisterial inquiry prompted Repubblika to file a court challenge.
In a decree handed down last month, Judge Christian Falzon Scerri, who is presiding the Repubblika case, ordered Inspector Pauline D’Amato from the FCID to testify and exhibit correspondence exchanged between the department and the AG, regarding the nolle prosequi decision.
The inspector was also ordered to exhibit copies of international or European arrest warrants issued by the Courts of Magistrates between December 2020 and February 2021, following the conclusion of the magisterial inquiry into Pilatus Bank which had ended around that time.
D’Amato’s testimony and that of the AG are expected to be heard in the next sitting on Tuesday.
Late in the day
Earlier this year, MaltaToday revealed that the international arrest warrants were despatched to American justice counterparts in early 2022, requesting the extradition of Hasheminejad to Malta to answer on possible charges, yet to be filed, for facilitating large volumes of suspicious transactions that could have criminal origins.
The IAWs were issued very late in the day, despite being signed by Pilatus inquiring magistrate Ian Farrugia back at the start of 2021.
Apart from Hasheminejad, who is believed to be living in the USA after his arrest and later acquittal on sanctions-busting charges, the other bank officials named in the IAWs were Pilatus Bank operations chief Luis Rivera, now living in Texas; operations supervisor Mehmet Tasli; and director Hamidreza Ghambari.
The prospects of an immediate extradition from the US are next to nothing with legal sources expecting the Americans to seek clarifications on the charges, followed by lengthy litigation by the accused to stall the process.
Suffice to say that it took more than a year in the Yorgen Fenech case in which the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder suspect is charged with the illegal purchase of firearms on the dark web using cryptocurrency, for the US court to authorise the US Attorney to serve subpoenas as required in a request by the Maltese police.
Pilatus Bank was shut down by the European Central Bank and the Malta Financial Services Authority in March 2018 after Pilatus owner Ali Sadr Hasheminejad was arrested by FBI at Dulles Airport and charged with breaching sanctions against Iran when he funnelled $115 million in payments to his Iranian family’s companies.
However, in an unprecedented turn of events, after first being found guilty by the New York court, the United States District Attorney filed a nolle prosequi, effectively throwing the sponge over a grievous error in withholding evidence from the Hasheminejad defence team. The US courts have since expunged the guilty verdict.
The Malta-based private bank, controversial for its close association to members of the Azerbaijani ruling dynasty shot to notoriety just before the 2017 general election when Daphne Caruana Galizia alleged that the secretive Panama company Egrant was owned by then prime minister Joseph Muscat’s wife, Michelle, and the company banked with Pilatus.
The Muscats denied the allegations and the prime minister asked for a magisterial inquiry into the claims.
The inquiry found no connection whatsoever between the Muscats and Egrant.
Repubblika says government trying to patch things up
Meanwhile, Repubblika claimed government was trying to do all it can to stop the Attorney General and an FCID inspector from testifying in Tuesday’s sitting.
Reacting to the MaltaToday report, the rule of law NGO said government did not want the AG to testify about her decision not to prosecute against two Pilatus Bank officials despite a magisterial inquiry recommending otherwise.
“48 hours away from the important court sitting in the case filed by Repubblika, government is trying to patch things up. We know the facts of this case, as we have already shown through documents that we presented in court and others we will be presenting,” the statement said.
Repubblika said it will not allow the same “obscenity” that happened in the HSBC heist plea bargain deal to happen also in the Pilatus Bank case.
“We know what happened and what is happening in the corridors of the office of the Attorney General… the AG and the Police Commissioner have to understand that they are not above the law. We know that AG Victoria Buttigieg, deputy police commissioner Alexandra Mamo and Police Commissioner Angelo Gafà performed summersaults not to obey the order given to them by Magistrate Ian Farrugia in the Pilatus Bank inquiry,” Repubblika said.