A Maltese charter company owner and four employees have been acquitted of providing vessels for the evacuation of mercenaries from Libya in violation of EU sanctions.

James Fenech, owner of Sovereign Charters, had been taken to court in 2020 along with employees Bertrand Agius, Konrad Agius, Charles Bugeja and Michael Cauchi and accused of breaking EU rules after sending two Malta-registered RHIBs to Libya without the necessary permission.

The boats were hired under the pretext that they were to be used to evacuate “geological prospecting workers” from Libya in 2019.

However, during her judgment on Tuesday, Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech ruled that the type of boats in question were not listed as prohibited goods under the sanctions in question.

Inspector Omar Zammit had testified about the police investigation which began when 20 people claiming to have fled Libya arrived aboard an RHIB at the seaport of Valletta on July 1, 2019. The men aboard the RHIB told Maltese immigration officials that they had carried out geological surveys. in Libya for a Dubai-based company called Opus Capital Asset Ltd and had decided to flee due to the rapidly deteriorating security environment.

But these men were white Westerners and were noted as being in top physical condition, unlike the irregular migrants officials were used to. An investigation later revealed that the men were in fact private military contractors (PMCs) who had to be evacuated from Libya after a plan to supply military helicopters to Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar was canceled at the last minute.

The men had been released from arrest by police two days after the Maltese company that rented them the two RHIBs, Sovereign Charters, agreed to pay a €15,000 fine for immigration irregularities.

A South African citizen by the name of Steven Lodge identified himself as the leader of this group, explaining that he owned Umbra Aviations, a company based in South Africa, which supplied helicopters for geographical surveys and the fight against the poaching.

Zammit said Lodge told police that when the men arrived in Libya, they searched the port of Benghazi for boats that could be used with helicopters for air-sea rescue or for transporting personnel who was in Libya, but did not find any suitable ships.

Lodge claimed that Opus Capital headquarters informed him that they would be sending two RHIBS which had been leased from Sovereign Charters Ltd. While en route to Malta, one of the RHIBS broke down and had to be abandoned.

It was found that the group of 20 people had already booked flights for them. After it was confirmed that the men did not pose a threat to national security, immigration officials turned them away, after fining a number of them for entering Malta without visas .

The prosecution insisted that since the defendants did not seek permission from the Sanctions Monitoring Board before sending the RHIBs to Libya, this constituted a violation of EU sanctions against Libya.

The inspector called Fenech back telling him he had instructed his employees to get clearance from immigration authorities and had hired a law firm to draft the necessary contracts and ensure the law was followed. .

When confronted with the fact that Sovereign Charters Ltd had received a payment of €480,000 from Lancaster 6, a company owned by Christian Durrant, a former partner of Blackwater founder Erik Prince, Fenech denied knowing that the company was owned by Durrant. He was unable to explain why the payment was received from Lancaster 6 when his company’s agreement had been made with Opus Capital to whom it had also sent the invoice for the charter contract.

On cross-examination, Inspector Zammit explained that, in his view, the two RHIBs fell within the categories of goods “outdoor motor boats” and “inflatable pleasure or sports craft” prohibited from export to Libya. The court noted that it made no attempt to verify whether the RHIB in question, a Madera MR1250 outboard, was inflatable or not.

Indeed, during the procedure, it was demonstrated that the vessel’s “CN code” – an 8-digit product classification system used in export declarations and in statistical declarations for trade in the European Community – did not appear on the list of prohibited goods in the corresponding Council Regulation.

The court noted that it was “really disturbing that, while it was so clear and obvious that the Council Regulation which the defendants are accused of breaching, only applied to goods with the codes of nomenclature listed, there was still no attempt to verify – once specified and mentioned in the same appendix – whether these seagoing vessels had a code from the very limited list of six, which could have resulted in a breach of Council Regulation 2016/44 as amended.

It was clear, the court said, that only transactions involving goods with a particular CN code required prior authorization and no other types of goods.

Magistrate Frendo Dimech pointed out that the signature of a police officer on the documents relating to the embarkation of the ships before their departure confirmed that nothing about the departure had been hidden from the authorities, who could also have requested additional information. if it had been necessary.

It also emerged from the testimony of several witnesses that the surviving RHIB had informed port authorities in Valletta of its impending arrival and that nothing illegal was found when the arriving passengers were searched by the police.

The court acquitted Fenech and Sovereign Charters Ltd of all charges as it had not been satisfactorily proven that Sanctions Supervisory Board clearance was required for the charterparty agreement on the vessels in question .

Magistrate Frendo Dimech ruled that the prosecution had not produced a “single piece of CN code evidence” relating to the Manta 1 and Manta 2. “Only the defense presented evidence to show that vessels identical to those specified in the charter the parties’ agreement had a CN code different from those listed in Schedule VII of the settlement which the defendants are accused of having breached. This means that the defense has proven its thesis to the required degree, that of probability, and therefore nullifies the prosecution’s thesis”, judged the magistrate.