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25th Jan 2021

Cyprus, Malta, and Russia gang up on whistleblower

  • EU passports for sale to wealthy Russians pose money-laundering risk, Transparency International says (Photo: johnnyalive)

Cyprus has put out an EU arrest warrant against a whistleblower on high-level corruption in Malta.

The Cypriot authorities acted "recently" on a criminal complaint against Maria Efimova, the Malta whistleblower, the Cyprus Business Mail reported on Wednesday (17 January), citing police sources.

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  • Muscat's wife linked to dirty money from Azerbaijan regime, Efimova claims (Photo: Sonke Henning)

The complaint alleged that Efimova, a Russian national, stole money from Fragrance Distribution, a Cypriot firm where she used to work four years ago.

Maltese authorities were already after her on charges that she defrauded expenses at Pilatus Bank, a Maltese firm where also used to work.

Russia joined the two EU states before Christmas last year by sending interrogators to see her father at his flat in Moscow.

"Not the police [but] other authorities, they came to his house … and they wanted to learn some information about me," Efimova, a married mother of two, told the Cyprus Business Mail.

She said the Russian authorities had acted on a Cypriot tip-off.

Efimova is at the centre of sensational allegations against Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat.

She fled Malta last August after telling a journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, that Muscat's wife had a secret account at Pilatus Bank that had received dirty money from Azerbaijan.

The subsequent car-bomb assassination of Caruana Galizia thrust the affair onto the international stage.

"My life and that of my family in Malta was in danger and we were forced to leave … time showed that we did well to do so," Efimova told the Cyprus Business Mail.

She said the Cypriot warrant was part of a coordinated smear campaign.

She had earlier asked MEPs for help, speaking by videolink from an undisclosed location in Europe in November.

Ana Gomes, a Portuguese centre-left MEP, urged EU capitals in December to declare that Efimova was a "whistleblower" and to grant her "asylum or international protection, since she is at serious risk".

Golden passports

Caruana Galizia, the late Maltese journalist, also alleged that two top men in Muscat's government, Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, had used Pilatus Bank to handle kickbacks from Russian applicants to buy Maltese passports.

But Kurt Farrugia, the Maltese government spokesman, focussed attention on the Muscat wife case instead.

"Now we get to know Russian 'star' witness and main Daphne Caruana Galizia 'whistleblower' Efimova has no documents about … [her] allegations. We knew it all along. There can exist no document because the … case is a lie from beginning to end," he tweeted at the weekend.

An EU arrest warrant requests member states to apprehend and hand over suspects to the applicant country.

But Efimova told the Cyprus Business Mail that other EU jurisdictions appeared to be in no hurry to help Nicosia. "I have travelled to various European countries and asked police authorities if there is a warrant against me and nobody wanted to carry it out," she said.

Cyprus has a track record of teaming up with Russia against EU nationals.

Last year, it invited Russian interrogators to Nicosia to grill the lawyers of a British human rights activist, Bill Browder, after he put forward evidence that Russian officials laundered €30 million of stolen money via Cypriot banks.

Importing risk

Russian business tycoons have flocked to buy Malta's EU passports in the past two years under a scheme put in place by Muscat's government.

Transparency International, the NGO, warned in a report earlier this month that the passport scheme risked importing Russian corruption into the EU.

"Such a scheme is attractive in that it allows laundering large sums of money … European banks consider holders of 'gold passports' as local residents, and not as suspicious foreigners. In fact, it is a question of reputation laundering," the NGO said.

That process is well under way in Cyprus, which has been selling its EU passports to wealthy Russians for the past four years.

A leaked German intelligence report in 2012 noted that even before the passport scheme began, Cypriot banks were being used as a safe haven for billions of euros of illicit Russian money.

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US authorities have arrested the chair of the Maltese-registered Pilatus Bank for tax evasion. The bank facilitated political corruption in Malta but its whistleblower is now facing jail in Malta and fears for her life.

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