March 27, 2018 / 3:41 PM / 4 months ago

Malta activists urge Greece to grant asylum to whistleblower

VALLETTA, March 27 (Reuters) - Anti-corruption activists in Malta said on Tuesday they had written to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras urging him to grant asylum to a Russian woman who blew the whistle on alleged wrongdoing at Malta-based Pilatus Bank.

The woman, Maria Efimova, fled Malta after the car-bomb murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had identified her as one of her sources.

She is wanted by the Maltese courts to face charges of misappropriation of 2,000 euros ($2,480) by her former employers. Efimova says she had permission to use the money. Earlier this month she turned herself in to police in Athens.

Galizia, partly using information from Efimova, had asserted that the Maltese prime minister’s wife was the ultimate beneficiary of funds in a secret company in Panama, including funds from Azerbaijan transferred through Pilatus Bank.

The prime minister and his wife have denied the accusation, and a magistrate’s investigation in Malta is under way.

A group of Maltese NGOs, including the Civil Society Network, Occupy Justice, il-Kenniesa and Awturi, held a brief demonstration outside the Greek Embassy on Tuesday.

The embassy is in the same block which houses Pilatus Bank, just outside Valletta.

In their letter to the Greek premier, the activists said it was absurd that Efimova was subject to an international arrest warrant issued by Malta over “petty, private disputes”.

High-level persecution of individuals who divulge information is a big warning sign for others not to speak out, they said. “A journalist was murdered, and her source has suffered vilification, exile, considerable financial hardship and now arrest and detention.”

The Maltese government declined to comment.

Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb in October 2017. Three men have been charged with killing her but police have yet to name a likely motive.

The NGOs also highlighted how the chairman and owner of Pilatus Bank, Iranian national Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad, was arrested in the United States last week and faces a possible 125 years in prison on charges of circumventing U.S. sanctions, money laundering and fraud.

The values of freedom of expression should trump a possible misappropriation of 2,000 euros as alleged by Pilatus Bank, the activists said. They said they were ready to reimburse the bank for the alleged misappropriation of funds. ($1 = 0.8068 euros) (Reporting by Chris Scicluna Writing by Crispian Balmer Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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