Writers, Activists and Journalists in Malta: Robert Aqulina’s Pilatus: A Laundromat Bank in Europe

A book review by Lizzie Eldridge, Chair of Scottish PEN’s Writers at Risk Committee

May 16, 2023

A book review by Lizzie Eldridge, Chair of Scottish PEN’s Writers at Risk Committee

Robert Aquilina is President of the Maltese NGO, Repubblika, a civil society movement set up in the wake of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Since its inception in 2018, Repubblika has sustained a vociferous campaign against corruption, with the aim of enhancing human rights and democracy in Malta.

As well as ongoing campaigns and protests, Repubblika have taken the Maltese government to court and one such case involves Pilatus Bank, a money-laundering enterprise inaugurated by the disgraced ex-Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, in 2014. Pilatus Bank was owned by Ali Sadr, a wealthy Iranian with multiple passports as well as various names and birthdates. Pilatus Bank was forcibly closed down in November 2018 after the European Bank revoked its license.

Earlier that same year, Sadr was arrested in the US and, in 2020, he was convicted of 5 criminal counts connected to a scheme funnelling payments for a Venezuelan construction project to Iranian individuals and companies. It is strongly suspected that the funds derived by Sadr from this project were used to capitalise Pilatus Bank.[i] Only months after Sadr’s conviction, the charges were suddenly dropped.

Daphne Caruana Galizia exposed the fraud and corruption at Pilatus Bank and, following the unexpected turnaround by the US department of justice, Daphne’s family publicly called for Sadr to be extradited to Malta to face prosecution.[ii] Although international arrest warrants for the owner and top officials of Pilatus Bank were signed by a magistrate following an inquiry in 2021, only one official – and the bank itself! -have so far been charged. This led Repubblika to file two court cases over the Attorney General and the Police Commissioner’s consistent refusal to press charges against those named by the inquiry. These court cases are ongoing despite attempts to stall proceedings and it’s because of the insidious efforts to thwart the course of justice that Aquilina recently published a lengthy book about Pilatus Bank, exposing collusion between the Attorney General and the Police Commissioner to ensure that top officials named in the magisterial inquiry have so far eluded arrest.

Aquilina has taken huge personal risks in bringing this information to light. His decision to publish material previously kept behind closed doors occurs in a context where Malta has yet again fallen in the Press Freedom ratings and the dangers for journalists and activists are frighteningly real.[iii] Aquilina regularly receives threats, including death threats, both towards himself and his family. Despite winning court cases against some of the perpetrators, Aquilina’s police protection was removed without proper explanation as of June 2022 and thus he remains an open target.

Scottish PEN, PEN International and PEN Malta have been supporting Aquilina’s requests for police protection but, despite attempted communication with both the Prime Minister and the Police Commissioner, no satisfactory answers have been given, let alone any protection for Aquilina. In light of this, Aquilina recently went public, submitting a request for police protection to the Prime Minister and the Police Commissioner via his lawyer.

Referring to the Public Inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the letter states:

The report identified the State’s failure in recognising the combination of the hostile, dehumanising and intimidating environment against Daphne Caruana Galizia, targeting her for her publications on matters of corruption, financial crime, and impunity, in a highly polarised political culture which exposed her to such risks against which the public authorities ought to have acted. It is hereby being brought to your attention that an intimidating and hostile environment is being created against Dr Aquilina, due consideration of which is not being made by State authorities assessing whether Dr Aquilina and his family are deserving of protection.[iv]

Aqulina’s letter was given full support by a range of free expression organisations, further calling on the Maltese authorities ‘to prevent and protect against threats and violence against writers, journalists, and activists, including by publicly condemning all attacks and thoroughly investigating all cases.’[v] To date, there has been no response to any of these requests.

Reacting to the publication of Aquilina’s book, the Prime Minister’s scathing words were beyond contemptible: ‘stick to books and blogs, which you enjoy dabbling with, whilst we will reply by creating more jobs and generating wealth for the people.’[vi] Derided as a ‘hate blogger’ by Labour politicians, Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated.

Like Daphne, Aquilina has revealed corruption and collusion at the highest levels. He risked – and still risks – being charged with contempt of court for making public previously unpublished court documents, emails and reports. He publishes in full the independent financial investigation into Pilatus Bank by Duff and Phelps, the court-appointed experts who examined the operations of the bank in relation to money laundering. This heretofore unseen material gives a detailed account of the nature of the corruption involved and the names of those who perpetrated these crimes.

Aquilina’s book also draws on previously unpublished emails, providing clear evidence that the bank’s money-laundering activities were deliberately covered up and those close to the government were given protection. The bank’s risk officer, Antonella Gauci, for example, avoided the magistrate’s directions for prosecution through collusion between the Attorney General and senior police officers. A nolle prosequi (do not prosecute) was issued which necessitated the same status being granted to one of Gauci’s accomplices so as to cover up the cover-up.

Gauci comes from a family with strong ties to the government. Her father is a well-known canvasser for the Labour Party and the current Prime Minister, Robert Abela, has twice acted as lawyer for a company owned by the Gauci family. Antonella Gauci is visible in the infamous video capturing Ali Sadr’s escape from the bank in April 2017 at a time when Daphne Caruana Galizia was publishing exclusives about Egrant, an account held at Pilatus which, Daphne claimed, belonged to Michelle Muscat, wife of the then Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat.[vii] The getaway car used by Sadr to flee Malta was registered to Antonella Gauci’s father, Alfred.

Aquilina’s book contains damning evidence of the political collusion involved in protecting Antonella Gauci via an email sent by the Deputy Police Commissioner, Alessandra Mamo, to 3 FCID Inspectors. Under the subject line ‘Nolle Prosequi (Mehmet Tasli/ Antonella Jane Gauci)’, Mamo writes, ‘Thank you would be an understatement’, and stipulating the quick time frame required for the report to reach the Attorney General’s office.[i]

Like Daphne Caruana Galizia, Aquilina relies on sources for some of the information he cites. Given there is no protection for whistleblowers in Malta, these people are also placing themselves at great risk to ensure the truth comes out. While the intricacies and machinations of the events in the story resemble an OTT blockbuster movie, they show, and starkly, the mafia operations at work which enabled the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and which still facilitate and perpetuate a culture of impunity.

Aqulina’s book ends with a quote from Orwell’s Animal Farm:

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

This ties in perfectly with recent exposure of extensive and intimate WhatsApp chats between Rosianne Cutajar, a former junior government minister, and Yorgen Fench, indicted for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. In these chats, Cutajar justifies her criminality on the grounds that ‘Everyone’s pigging out’.[ii] Like Aquilina, Mark Camilleri who published these chats, breached a court ban to make this information public. While Cutajar remains free, Camilleri was immediately hit with a court order demanding criminal action.

Hot on the heels of publications which shed yet more light on corruption comes a disinformation campaign, intended to discredit Repubblika along with other NGOs and pressure groups.[iii] Being a government critic, an activist and/or a journalist in Malta comes at a huge cost. Daphne Caruana Galizia paid the highest price, brutally assassinated because she refused to remain silent. In a country where, almost 2 years on, the recommendations of the Public Inquiry into her murder have still not been implemented, it is imperative that protection be given for all those who follow bravely in her footsteps, who call for justice for Daphne’s killing and the restoration of democracy and rule of law.

Scottish PEN stand in solidarity with our friends and comrades in Malta, reiterating our demands that immediate and proper protection be provided for those who use their democratic rights to call for truth and justice.

Robert’s book can be purchased now via Midsea Books.

[i] Robert Aquilina, Pilatus: A Laundromat Bank in Europe (Midsea Books, 2023), p.39.

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/06/us-drops-charges-against-banker-investigated-by-daphne-caruana-galizia-case

[iii] https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/malta-drops-places-global-press-freedom-index-84th-180-countries.1029158#:~:text=Malta%20has%20dropped%20six%20places,2020%2C%20when%20Malta%20ranked%2081st.

[iv] https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/repubblika-head-robert-aquilina-seeks-police-protection.1027726

[v] https://scottishpen.org/malta-free-expression-organisations-call-on-the-authorities-to-give-full-protection-to-writer-and-activist-robert-aquilina/

[vi] https://newsbook.com.mt/en/stick-to-books-and-blogs-as-we-continue-to-lead-abela-says-after-pilatus-expose/

[vii] https://daphnecaruanagalizia.com/2017/04/pilatus-bank-chairmanowner-accounts-officer-caught-leaving-bank-tonight-bags-containing-documents/