(Updates with comments made by MEPs)
By Stelios Orphanides
Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Ana Gomes on Tuesday asked Greek authorities to protect the life of surrendered whistle-blower Maria Efimova and that of her family.
“It has come to my attention that Russian whistle-blower Maria Efimova, fearing for her life and the security of her family, walked into the Greek police, in Athens, last night, asking for protection,” Gomes, the Portuguese MEP who in November led an ad hoc delegation to Malta, weeks after the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, said in a letter addressed to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
“Maria Efimova revealed crucial information and is a material witness in investigations on corruption and money laundering in Malta, involving Pilatus Bank and government members exposed by Panama Papers,” and Malta’s Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit, Gomes continued. “Therefore, I urge you to ensure that Greek authorities provide Maria Efimova with protection and safeguard her security and that of her family and to prevent any attempts to return her to Malta”.
Also, Greek MEP Stelios Kouloglou joined Gomes and warned that Efimova’s possible extradition to Malta would put her life at risk, Greek news sites reported on Tuesday.
Efimova, an information source for Galizia, walked voluntarily into a Greek police station on Monday. She was previously living in Crete with her husband and two children and is facing an arrest warrant in Cyprus and related to the alleged embezzlement of funds from a Cypriot company where she worked four years ago and another one in Malta.
Efimova initially surrendered to Greek police without a lawyer and a group of supporters secured her legal representation as a state attorney was expected to decide her fate on Tuesday.
“She is sitting in a dirty jail in Athens without a bed or anything much to eat,” one of her supporters said. “I think in all likelihood she will be extradited back to Malta, where she will be in serious trouble, without any real chance at a fair trial”.
Galizia lost her life in a car-bomb attack on October 16, five months after exposing the wife of Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as owner of Egrant Inc., a Panamanian company. Egrant received funds via Pilatus Bank from an account belonging to a daughter of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. Aliyev has ruled the Caucasus country for the last 15 years. The revelations unleashed a political storm in Malta, ahead of the general elections which Muscat ultimately won.
The Maltese prime minister and his wife Michelle deny any wrongdoing.
Police in Cyprus were not immediately available for comment.
Greece’s news site tvxs.gr reported she took the decision to surrender after the media, mainly in Britain, sought to link her case to the recent row between the UK and Russia over the Salisbury toxic attack that left former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in critical condition.
Efimova had previously worked for the Russian-owned and Limassol-based company I.D.F. Fragrance Distribution Ltd before leaving Cyprus. In an interview in January, she said she was informed she was likely to face arrest upon her return to Cyprus – where she wanted to settle with her family. She denied any wrong doing and said that the complaint was part of a plot to discredit her for her whistle-blowing.
In May, Galizia wrote in her blog that the Maltese ruling party had likened the Efimova, named in that entry as “Mrs AB,” to a Russian spy.
“So today she’s a Bond girl, a Russian spy, somebody who (sic) Vladimir Putin personally planted at Pilatus Bank in January 2016, when the world did not know about Egrant Inc – the story broke in the Panama Papers the following April – so that he could exact his revenge on Joseph Muscat for refusing to refuel his warships the following November, almost a year later,” the murdered journalist wrote.
Efimova was the target of slanderous press reports in Cyprus, which prompted criticism from members of the European Parliament. Some Cypriot media reported without corroborating that she was a suspect for the journalist’s death or that she engaged in irregularities at a previous position she held at another company.
In January, Efimova applied for asylum in an unspecified European Union member state.
According to Maltese journalist Manuel Delia an arrest warrant against Efimova pending in Malta is related to an alleged misappropriation of €2,000 and to a complaint filed by her former employer Pilatus Bank.
“In August 2017, Magistrate Joseph Mifsud had ordered her name be placed on the wanted list after she repeatedly failed to turn up for a court sitting,” Delia said on Tuesday. “In July, the court had ordered the woman to be brought to court under arrest and had fined her €500 for failing to keep her appointment. During a November sitting, Efimova once again made no appearance when her case was duly called out”.
“Inspector Jeffrey Scicluna explained that since last August’s sitting, a European Arrest Warrant as well as an International Arrest Warrant had been issued against the woman,” Delia continued. “These were communicated to all member states via the Schengen Alert System, the court was informed. She is the subject of at least two criminal proceedings, in one accused of defrauding Pilatus Bank and in another of having made false accusations against Superintendent Denis Theuma and inspectors Jonathan Ferris and Lara Butters”.