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IAR welcomes two year prison sentence for smuggler

IAR Malta Chairman Max Farrugia has welcomed the two year prison sentence handed out to a man who tried to smuggle thousands of protected birds and tortoises from Tunisia.

During the early hours of 14 March 2004, the accused, Publius Zammit, 46, of Msida, and his partner in crime were arrested after a chase at sea and on land. 

The court heard how police and the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) had received a tip-off about a contraband operation involving the accused smuggling hundreds of birds from Tunisia into Malta. 

AFM personnel were subsequently deployed to investigate the suspicions further.  An army vessel intercepted the accused’s power boat ‘Little Child’ between Malta and Gozo. However, upon seeing the army boat the accused sped off and escaped. AFM vessels lost sight of the power boat but then tracked the boat’s movement on radar. The power boat was then intercepted at Xatt l-Ahmar in Gozo. The AFM then switched their search light on, told them who they were, and ordered them to stop. However, the accused again managed to speed off – almost crashing into the AFM vessel in the process. 

The boat’s movement was later tracked to Gnejna. Despite being ordered to stop once again, Zammit and his partner disembarked and ran off. A chase ensued and AFM personnel also fired up to ten warning shots into the air and the ground. Some of the warning shots hit Zammit’s partner who was taken to hospital and certified to be suffering from gunshot wounds in his legs and shoulders. Zammit was apprehended by police after surrendering. 

A search at Xatt l-Ahmar discovered 180 sealed boxes, cages and crates packed with 4126 green finches, 72 linnets, two long-headed buzzards, and 168 tortoises. Many of the birds were found alive but others, including the buzzards, were dead.  A court later ordered that the dead birds be destroyed and ordered the release of the live birds.  Scene of the crime officers and divers also found a satellite phone and a torch, as well as a GPS. A search of the accused’s car had yielded two balaclavas. 

In his testimony, Zammit denied that he was involved in contraband and smuggling, arguing that on the day of the incident, he was simply driving his boat around. Asked why he had sped off from the AFM vessel, Zammit told the court that he had not recognised it as an army vessel and that he sped off because he feared that he would be harmed. He also said he only realised that the boats belonged to the AFM after he was apprehended by police.  Zammit’s plea was however dismissed by the court. 

In its decree, the court presided by Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera found the man guilty of disobeying police orders, of failing to declare the protected birds and of illegal importation of protected birds. 

Taking into account the accused’s long criminal record, Magistrate Scerri Herrera gave the man a two and a half year prison term. The court also ordered that the power boat should be confiscated. 
IAR Malta Chairman Max Farrugia said: “We welcome the handing out of this prison sentence which should send a message to other potential smugglers that wildlife smuggling is a serious crime and will be dealt with as such by the courts.    We also congratulate the police and the AFM on their successful operation to apprehend Zammit and his partner. Thanks to them the lives of at least some of the birds were saved and they were released back into the wild.”