AG explains request for freezing of assets

The Office of the Attorney has explained his request for the freezing of assets in a case involving charges of blackmail and defamation and the subsequent withdrawal of that request.

The case involved a 75-year-old “whistleblower” in the Rita Schembri case.

Magistrate Anthony Vella had  expressed his surprise at the request, saying that this was a defamation case and the accused, Joe Borg, was not charged with money laundering.

Mr Borg stands charged with sending a defamatory e-mail in which he allegedly attempted to blackmail Ms Schembri, who is the head of the government’s internal audit bureau (IAID).

In a statement, the Office of the Attorney General said that there was nothing illegal or irregular in the making of the original request which was based on Article 23A of the Criminal Code which authorises the requesting of the freezing of assets in any case where a person is charged with an offence carrying a penalty of at least one year imprisonment.

"It has to be pointed out that the freezing of assets is an important tool in the fight against crime and that it should not be considered as an extreme or very exceptional measure if that fight is to be taken seriously.

"Moreover it is a measure which requires immediate implementation to be effective given that the delay in issuing such an order grants the opportunity for the dissipation of the assets. This urgent nature of the order is evidenced by the very strong wording of Article 23A which, apart from not granting the Court any discretion as to whether it may issue a freezing order, imposes an obligation on the Court to temporarily freeze assets once a demand is made."

The AG said the law also provides for safeguards for the accused by providing for a right of review of the order by the Criminal Court.

"The decision to withdraw the demand in the particular case (originally made on the 4th January 2013) was based on an internal review within the Office of the Attorney General of the demand and of the facts and charges involved with due consideration also being given to the fact that the Court had failed to issue a temporary freezing order as provided by Article 23A

"In the circumstances it was decided on a balance of all the facts and incidents of the case not to proceed with the particular demand," the AG said.

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