By Matthew Agius
Health ministry official Neville Gafa says Khalid Ibrahim Ben Nasan had tried to blackmail him • Police trace mobile phone from which threatening text messages emerged back to Ben Nasan.
Criminal proceedings have been initiated against Syrian middleman Khalid Ibrahim Ben Nasan, who last year accused a health ministry official of “masterminding” a racket involving the issuance of medical visas to Libyan nationals.
In court today, health ministry official Neville Gafa testified against Ben Nasan, whom the opposition last year described him to be a whistleblower. Gafa told the court that the Syrian national had tried to blackmail him.
Gafa was investigated last year over claims that he had accepted bribes to facilitate the approval of medical visas for Libyan citizens seeking medical care in Malta. His office at the Ministry of Health had been raided by police and he strongly denies the allegations.
The processing of medical visas, initially for Libyans wounded in the conflict there, was one of the jobs Gafa was assigned to by the health ministry, he told magistrate Doreen Clarke this morning.
Gafa told magistrate Clarke that he would receive medical reports, pass them on to Mater Dei hospital, then if the case was adjudged to be admissible, he would consult with the chief medical officer and immigration for the visa to be issued.
The payment was €66 per injured patient, he said. The wounded would be picked up from the runway by a waiting ambulance and someone would pay the fee to immigration at the airport. Medical tourism was another thing, he said.
The process of due diligence and paperwork was the same, but Gafa and his colleagues would take the money to the Central Visa Unit themselves, he said. The court was told that Gafa had been director of the coordination unit at the health ministry. He had told police that he was the liaison between the Minister for Health and the Prime Minister on general health matters.
“We would take all the certificates and payments to the CVU and vetting would be done. If the police decide that certain individuals weren’t to be allowed in Malta, the €66 would be kept. It was not refundable. A fee.”
He said he couldn’t answer for the money mentioned by Ben Nasan, to whom he had been introduced through the embassy at the time. He was initially told that Ben Nasan would be bringing some medical reports belonging to people wounded in Tripoli.
“Those amounts… I never saw them. Yes, there were the €66 from refused applicants.” There was a time when the scheme was suspended because the hospitals could not take any more patients from Libya, he said.
Gunshot victims would generally be accompanied by a relative who would pay the fee, he said in cross-examination. The costs of medical care would be paid for by the Libyan government, except in the case of medical tourism, which would be paid for by the individual.
Government and Tripoli secret service would vet the emergency cases, Gafa said. “As soon as they arrive at the airport, their visas would be issued.” Even those brought over by Ben Nasan would be subject to due diligence with the Libyan government.
He said he had filed a criminal complaint against Ben Nasan because “he was trying to corrupt me. He wanted to meet me to bring people over as he had before.”
Gafa said he had no idea what Ben Nasan’s interest in bringing people over was. “He started blackmailing me, saying he would release certain files and videos if I didn’t.” Ben Nasan had then proceeded to file police reports claiming that he had been threatened.
Prosecuting police inspector Rennie Stivala, from the Economic Crimes Unit, also took the witness stand this morning.
Inspector Stivala testified that the police had been asked to investigate Neville Gafa for allegedly receiving money from people coming to Malta from Libya to receive medical treatment from the FMS president at the time.
The criminal complaint was accompanied by copies of correspondence with the FMS and others with then health minister Konrad Mizzi, in which Ben Nasan’s lawyer asks for his intervention.
Inspector Stivala told the magistrate that he had spoken to Ben Nasan. “He said he would pass on applications for Libyans needing medical attention to Neville Gafa who would process them on behalf of the government of Malta, as this was his job.”
Ben Nasan had told him that at a certain point “Gafa started asking for a payment between €500 –€1000 every time.” Receipts were given, but the receipt book was never given to the police, he said.
Ben Nasan, Stivala added, had become suspicious and spoken to St James Hospital, which had been party to an agreement with government and subsequently entered into a separate agreement with the hospital.
Ben Nasan had told the police that he had felt better contacting the hospital directly and the hospital had also felt this way.
In the course of his investigations, inspector Stivala had also spoken to Maria Bugeja, then CEO of St James Hospital, who explained to the police that the whilst Gafa would bring patients under the government deal, Ben Nasan dealt with health tourists.
All the clients Ben Nasan had brought would pay themselves, or he would pay for them himself. There wouldn’t be outstanding balances, unlike the cases brought by Gafa, which would then be settled by the Libyan embassy.
Bugeja had told police that Ben Nasan had approached the hospital, and she had seen nothing wrong with this as they were private clients. She had also said that, as far as she had observed, there was no wrongdoing by Gafa. His investigations had also pointed to Gafa’s innocence he said.
No cash was found in Gafa’s office – which Ben Nasan had pointed out as the likely place he had stashed the money. No other properties were searched, he said.
In August 2016, a criminal complaint had been filed by Ben Nasan, in which the Syrian had alleged that he had been called by a person who had threatened him and his children.
“It appears that these threats were linked to the Libyan visa scandal,” Stivala said. His lawyer had also requested police protection for Ben Nasan.
The police had looked into the mobile phone calls. The number from which Ben Nasan had received the calls on, had not received any calls at the time period he specified, the inspector said.
In September 2016, Ben Nasan had gone to the Swieqi Police Station to report an SMS from the same numbers that had called him the month before. The police, however, traced the source to a contract phone registered Ben Nasan himself, two months before.
“When I saw this, I reached the conclusion that Ben Nasan might have done this to lend more credibility to the first allegation that he had made.”
He was called in for questioning and had confirmed that the device had been his, but that he had given the device to someone else. He was unable to explain how the messages were being sent from a new line, paired to device that, two weeks before, was registered under his own name.
Gafa stated that the new BMW allegedly bought from the proceeds of the operation was a replacement for a car that he had crashed – Ben Nasan had claimed that Gafa had bought the new car from the money cashed.
“I bought my car in June 2015. In April 2017, I had a traffic accident and instead of fixing it, because it was severely damaged, I took it back to the dealer and exchanged it for another model.” His first BMW was silver. The second car was black.
Cross-examined by the defence, he said that he hadn’t sold it, but had simply returned it to the dealer who had replaced it with a second hand vehicle.
Gafa told the court that he was assigned by the Prime Minister as a liaison between the ministry and the Prime Minister. His contract was with FMS. He had been transferred to Gozo, but his role and contract remained the same, he said.
Although the Libyan visa agreement is still in force, transfers had been stopped some time after he had been transferred out, because the hospitals could not cater for the demand, he claimed. He was unable to say who had replaced him.
“I was very surprised because three months after Ben Nasan made the accusations against me, I received this,” he said, exhibiting what the court was told were seven pages of mobile screen shots.
The court gave a decree of prima facie. The case continues in September.
Legal Procurator Peter Paul Zammit is appearing parte civile for Gafa; lawyer Leslie Cuschieri is defence counsel to Ben Nasan.
Matthew Agius – A Court reporter and a Legal Procurator and Commissioner for Oaths. Prior to reading Law at the University of Malta, Matthew served in the British Army.