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Suitcases in the night – Ryan Murdock

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Frustrated citizens took to the streets again this week to demand an end to the impunity that has smothered the country since 2013.

It was the first outbreak of large scale anti-corruption activism since December 2019, when the arrest of Yorgen Fenech and the sordid connections it revealed between top government officials, illicit deals and the brutal murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia brought the country to a halt.

This latest protest was sparked by revelations by The Shift and the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation of a secret agreement signed with Azerbaijan’s SOCAR Trading, and the failure of law enforcement to act against Pilatus Bank, despite clear orders more than a year ago from a magistrate to prosecute.

If you’re new to Malta, you might be wondering what the fuss is about. After all, the veritable money laundering machine was shut down by the European Central Bank four years ago. Surely there are more imminent threats?

We have to turn the clock back to 2017 to understand why the scandal was so shocking — and why the government is determined to keep it under a rug already bulging with secrets.

It all began with suitcases in the night and a scene right out of a B-movie.

On the evening of 19 April 2017, journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia published a blog hinting that she knew who owned Egrant, a mysterious Panama company set up within hours of the Labour Party’s 2013 election to power.

The two other companies established alongside it belonged to then Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and then chief of staff Keith Schembri, respectively, but the individual connected to Egrant was so sensitive that he or she would only be named over Skype.

The entire country held its breath, hitting ‘refresh’ until the update appeared. Everyone expected her to name prime minister Joseph Muscat, but she claimed Egrant’s ultimate beneficial owner was Muscat’s wife.

She said the related documents were held in a safe in the bank’s kitchen, where it was shielded from CCTV by EU Data Protection laws that forbid surveillance in employee break rooms.

Joseph Muscat ordered a revision of the ministerial code of ethics. Cabinet members no longer had to include assets owned by their spouses or underage children in their annual declaration. If Michelle Muscat really did own Egrant, as Daphne reported, it was distanced from the prime minister.

Minutes after the blog was published, Joseph Muscat sprang into action with an evening press conference filled with angry denials, calling it “the biggest political lie ever told in this country.”

He was curiously careful with his words. “We never signed any type of document which transfers shares of a company,” he said. “I have never signed, never been offered to sign…”

When asked whether he would call for an investigation, the prime minister declined. He would let the country’s institutions do their job. Meanwhile, his pet police commissioner nibbled rabbit in a distant corner of the island with his buddies and refused to comment.

That same night, Ali Sadr Hasheminejad was caught on camera by Net News slipping out the back door of Pilatus Bank with risk manager Antoniella Gauchi and beetling down the street with two heavy bags.

The reporter gasped a steady stream of questions as he struggled to keep up: “Do you work for Pilatus Bank? Why were you there so late at night?”

Ali Sadr stared straight ahead, dodging around corners with grim determination, crossing and recrossing the same empty street. His face only broke into a smirk when he dumped the bags into the boot of a car.

As he got in the passenger seat, he turned to his pursuer and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and you’d better learn some English to ask some questions.” The reporter didn’t know the young man with the greased-back hair who’d just slipped away was the bank’s owner.

And then Flight Radar showed a chartered jet leaving Malta for Baku, Azerbaijan at 4am. The plane went from there to Dubai, where Egrant was alleged to have another account.

One week later, VistaJet — the company that carried out this empty “ferry flight” — was given €1 million in funding from Malta’s tourism budget on the direct order of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Once the goose had flown, Muscat confidently ordered a raid on the bank and a magisterial inquiry into the Egrant allegations. This sudden contradiction of his televised conference, held just hours before, was announced in a Department of Information press release issued in the middle of the night.

It all felt like a bad movie, and the nation was watching it live online.

And now here we are five years later, with nothing to show for it but the bulging 1,501-page report of a 15-month long magisterial inquiry conducted at a cost of €1.3 million, its terms carefully designed by the prime minister’s personal lawyer.

Its findings were meant to be inconclusive. At the bottom of page 1,384, Magistrate Aaron Bugeja notes quite clearly that “this inquiry was not set up to establish who owned the shares in Egrant Inc”.

He was only tasked with asking if evidence exists that they were “owned by Michelle Muscat or are otherwise attributable to her or her husband, the Prime Minister”.

Pay attention to the careful language. These were bearer shares, owned by whoever happened to be holding them. But that’s another complex story, and we don’t have time for it here.

Another separate magisterial inquiry was launched in November 2018, around the time Europe shut Pilatus Bank down. It wrapped up over a year ago, at a cost of €7 million, but little has been done to act on its findings.

Repubblika revealed the leaked conclusions of that report on Tuesday.

In it, the magistrate ordered police to prosecute several individuals, including Antoniella Gauci, the woman who helped Ali Sadr Hasheminejad remove those two bulging bags on the night Daphne published her famous Egrant accusation.

It also said the Egrant case is not “closed” despite Joseph Muscat’s insistence that he was exonerated. On the contrary, the magistrate ordered fresh investigations into the claims made by Daphne six months before she was killed.

More than a year after the inquiry’s conclusion, the police are still sitting on their hands, unwilling or afraid to slap the cuffs on the former employees of a mysterious private bank which may hold the key that unlocks a vast network of corruption.

And what of the judicial protest Repubblika filed to force police to abide by the magistrate’s order?

The case is being heard by Nadine Lia, daughter-in-law of Pawlu Lia, the lawyer who helped Joseph Muscat craft the terms of the Egrant inquiry.


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Man faces underage sex crime charges | News, Sports, Jobs

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A Tyrone man facing dozens of charges involving child pornography and human trafficking has been denied bail.

Paul Robert Holpit, 24, was arraigned Wednesday morning before Magisterial District Judge Fred B. Miller on 15 felony charges each of photographing, filming, or depicting a sex act involving a child and of disseminating explicit sexual material to a minor; eight felony counts each of trafficking in individuals-recruit/entice/solicit, of corruption of minors, of unlawful contact with a minor-sexual offenses and of drug possession with intent to deliver; three felony counts of criminal solicitation; two felony counts each of trafficking in individuals for financial benefit, of child pornography and of criminal solitication-sexual exploitation of children; one felony count each of criminal soliticiation-involuntary deviate sexual intercourse of a person less than 16 years of age and of criminal solicitation-involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child; and 10 felony counts of criminal use of a communication facility.

He also faces two misdemeanor counts of corruption of minors and a misdemeanor count of indecent assault of a person less than 16 years old.

According to the court docket, Holpit was denied bail due to the threat to the community and safety of the victims, his flight risk and the nature of the charges.

Holpit was remanded to the Blair County Prison awaiting a Sept. 20 preliminary hearing in front of Miller.

Pot for sex alleged

The charges stem from an five-month investigation by the Tyrone Borough Police Department after a minor female told police that Holpit provided numerous minors with marijuana in exchange for sexual acts.

On the police department’s Facebook page, police said 11 minor victims were identified and forensic interviews were conducted. The victims ranged from 12 to 17 years old, police said.

On May 6, borough police executed a search warrant on Holpit’s West 14th Street home and seized three iPhones, a Playstation, two HP laptops, an iWatch, cable modem, related charging cords, 297 grams of marijuana, clear sandwich bags, a silver scale and a glass pipe with residue.

Officers also received permission from parents and guardians to review the contents of cellphones belonging to the minors, court documents state.

During subsequent interviews, police said the minors reported talking to Holpit on Snapchat and meeting him in person. Holpit allegedly sent nude photos of himself to one 15-year-old, who said he sent photos at least once a day starting in December 2021 and continued for about two months. He also offered her free marijuana, alcohol and money in exchange for a sex act, the teen told police.

A 17-year-old told police she received marijuana from Holpit for about two years. In October 2021, Holpit began asking the girl for nude photos and she provided him with pictures a couple of times in exchange for marijuana. At least once, Holpit requested sex and he would send random pictures and videos of his genitals, she said. He also talked about her 12-year-old sister, asking the girl to talk the youngster into having sex with him for money.

The 12-year-old said she began talking to Holpit through Snapchat and then he began asking for photos of her body. He offered money, marijuana and tobacco for the pictures, she told police. He continued to ask, even though she said no, she said, and he sent photos of his genitals. He allegedly offered her money for oral sex.

Another 15-year-old said Holpit added her to Snapchat when she was 12 or 13 years old and conversations became sexual in nature, with Holpit asking for sex and sex acts in exchange for marijuana. She bought marijuana from him, the teen told police, and received nude photos of him on multiple occasions.

The interviews with the teens continued into June and July, according to court documents, and police talked to a 17-year-old, who also said she communicated with Holpit via Snapchat. Holpit allegedly sent her photos multiple times that included his genitals. He also asked for sexual favors in exchange for marijuana. The teen told police she did buy marijuana from Holpit in the past.

A 16-year-old said she purchased marijuana from Holpit and he used Snapchat to set up the purchases. She told police she then blocked him because she knew he sent nude photos to minors and requested sexual favors.

Marijuana bought

Four other minors, ranging in age from 15 to 17, told police that Holpit was their marijuana dealer. They also reported using Snapchat and that Holpit sent nude photos, asked for sex, sex acts and nude photos in exchange for the drug and in one case, asked a girl to have sex with him and another male in exchange for marijuana.

One 17-year-old said she began purchasing marijuana from Holpit, but the exchanges turned sexual, with Holpit giving her marijuana for sex acts and nude photos. He also sent her nude photos of himself via Snapchat and she received images about three times a week from November 2021 until April of this year, when she contacted police. Police said a majority of the in-person contacts with Holpit occurred at a Tyrone Borough church. At least one incident occurred in the parking lot of Penn Highlands Tyrone Hospital, police stated.

All victims reported receiving unsolicited photos of Holpit’s genitals and the photos appeared to have been taken in his bedroom, according to court documents.

Images of girls found

A search of Holpit’s cellphone turned up photos of the girls as well as images of large amounts of marijuana and cash. In addition, police said several conversations indicated Holpit was dealing marijuana. Videos, including of a minor girl giving oral sex to a minor boy, were found on the phone.

Police said 20 images and/or videos depicting child pornography were found and that Holpit provided eight minors with photos of his genitals.

He also provided seven of the juveniles with marijuana and arranged drug sales or disseminated pornographic images to nine individuals, court documents state. Holpit would meet individuals at various spots in Tyrone Borough to make drug deliveries, police reported.



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After 6 years, Karnataka government orders abolition of ACB, revival of Lokayukta

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The Karnataka government on Friday issued an order abolishing the state Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), saying all its cases will be transferred to the Lokayukta.

The government order said that as per the orders of the Karnataka High Court, the ACB will be abolished and police station powers reordered to Lokayukta police. All the cases which are pending/under inquiry/other disciplinary actions will be transferred to Lokayukta, it added.

In mid-August, a division bench of the Karnataka High Court had ordered the abolishing of ACB and revival of an anti-corruption police unit attached to the Karnataka Lokayukta, a quasi-judicial institution that works independent of the state.

The high court order quashed a notification issued by the then Congress government in the state on March 14, 2016, to create the ACB and also subsequent notifications transferring power to probe corruption cases under Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, from Karnataka Lokayukta police to the ACB.

“All inquiries, investigations and other disciplinary proceedings pending before ACB will get transferred to the Lokayukta. However, all inquiries, investigations, disciplinary proceedings, orders of convictions/acquittals and all other proceedings held by ACB till today are hereby saved and the police wing of Karnataka Lokayukta shall proceed from the stage at which they are pending as on today, in accordance with law,” the bench said in its order.

Stating that it was “high time” the state government strengthened the institution of Lokayukta and Upa-Lokayukta and got back their “glory”, the court observed that the institution of Lokayukta has been reduced to being “paper tigers” by the March 14, 2016 executive order to transfer police powers to ACB.

The order for abolishing the ACB relates to cases filed in 2016 by the Advocates Association of Bengaluru, the Samaj Parivartana Samudaya, and advocate Chidananda Urs over Lokayukta powers being given to ACB.

The high court had stated that “there was no necessity for the state government to constitute ACB parallel to the institution of Lokayukta, that too when a person to be appointed as Lokayukta shall be a person who has held the office of a judge of Supreme Court, or that of the Chief Justice of a high court, or a person who has held the office of a judge of a high court for not less than ten years; and a person to be appointed a Upa-Lokayukta shall be a person who has held the office of a judge of a high court for not less than five years.”

The high court acknowledged that Lokayukta had become a powerful institution and was plagued by internal corruption but observed that the solution to the problem was in cleaning the institution and not withdrawing its powers to probe.




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Latest Updates: Deepak Mundi sent to 7-day police remand in Sidhu Moosewala case

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THE TIMES OF INDIA | Sep 11, 2022, 10:55:02 IST

Daily City News Updates

Union home and cooperation minister Amit Shah will take part in a cooperative conference in Gujarat’s Amreli district on Sunday and unveil a 16-feet tall statue of Lord Hanuman in Somnath town. Stay with TOI for all the latest updates:Read Less




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