George Tabone “tal-Gram” is the witness for the government’s political case to remove temporary asset freezes for money laundering. He gives this heart-rending interview to Times of Malta describing pitifully how he suffered for years under a temporary asset freeze only to be eventually acquitted of the crimes he was accused of.

Two courts have examined his case, and his acquittal was confirmed on appeal by Judge Giovanni Grixti. I will not therefore re-examine the evidence or suggest he may have been guilty. A thief testified to selling stolen gold to George Tabone who ran the famous low-end gold super-market Gram. The thief described the meetings he said he had with Tabone including descriptions of the inside of Tabone’s offices.

The gold which was stolen and ostensibly sold to Tabone was never found. Of course, a hot furnace can in very short time change the shape of any gold into any other unrecognisable shape. But the court acquitted the jeweller because the items described by the victim were not found in his possession.

While he waited for that final ruling George Tabone says he lost his business to someone else. He didn’t get too far from it though. As he describes it, he was hired by the new owners as their consultant and he was only allowed to earn a miserable €13,000 a year, the maximum allowed by the law for people subjected to temporary asset freezes, though the new law is changing that. He describes that as a breach of his fundamental rights because he says it is his right, while presumed innocent, to earn as much money as he is capable of.

George Tabone also says he should have been allowed to enjoy money he was “given” (say, be friends or family), which temporary freezing orders would take away from him. And, he says, he should have been allowed to go on with his legitimate business while awaiting a verdict.

That’s what the new law will do. If the new law were to be applied to George Tabone the government would make a claim to freeze the value of the stolen gold he was alleged to have bought in the specific case he was being tried for. That’s like putting a seal on one of the drawers in his shop and letting him go on trading the rest as if nothing happened.

Forget George Tabone for the moment. The only reason I mention him is because he stepped up to speak for the government’s law like the testimonials you see on l-Istrina to move you to give money to charity.

Kif tista’ ma ċċempilx lil Jonathan Attard u tgħidlu jtih midalja ‘l George Tabone? That, I’m afraid, is untranslatable.

Think of a wise guy jeweller to whom buyers flock like Beatlemaniacs because somehow buying gold from them is cheaper than from anywhere else. You know of these. You hear of them. They come and go but in a certain rather widespread subculture they become little pop stars on a certain type of TV. They run those Saul Goodman style adverts on peripheral local out-of-a-garage TV station languishing at the bottom of your Melita menu.

The gold in their warehouse-turned-gold-supermarket is always a bit cheaper than elsewhere. It’s a bit cheaper yet because –nudge, nudge, wink, wink – if you buy a second item or more you can pay for those in cash, saving VAT. You get a cash register receipt for the first item. The rest comes with an extra 20% off and no receipt. Don’t worry if you need to return a gift without a receipt, it will be worth its weight in gold.

There’s a reason why the wise guy can afford to undercut everyone else. They purchase gold like their legitimate competitors, buying it from ordinary people and from regular suppliers. They insure their shipments and all the paperwork at customs is in order.

But they have a little extra activity going on the side. Thieves know they can sell to the famous jeweller stolen gold at half the market price. The jeweller pays cash because there’s plenty of that in boxes in his office, piled up from all the over-the-counter sales bla vatt and in its current untraceable state unbankable. By the time the underground supplier walks out of the office with a bag of money, the stolen gold is already liquified and being poured in moulds. By the next morning it is appended to a highly profitable yet somehow extremely competitive price tag in the shop window.

Not all the gold the wise guys is selling is stolen. Not even most of it. But enough of it is stolen, reshaped, and resold to undermine competition, drawing more buyers, and more over the counter cash transactions, more Saul Goodman style adverts, and on the scam goes.

This is no small operation. This is organised crime. You have a combination of violence and other forms of coercion that allow a “businessman” to secure for themselves an economic monopoly. In this case it’s cornering the market for lower-end gold. It could just as well be tuna fishing, table-top casinos, or the construction of mid-market apartments. Blue-collar criminals are kept at arm’s length supplying the organisation without really understanding how it works. And the self-described businessmen entertain law enforcement agents, regulators, and politicians, funding their habits or their election campaigns, and staying on top. There’s a word for that: mafia.

How do you prove this is happening? With enormous difficulty and, in this country without the benefit of the gamut of laws you really need to break down these rackets and lock these people up, perhaps impossible.

Narrowly on the gold trading, the difficulty is that once molten you can’t trace gold to its provenance. Will a witness, a poorly informed grunt, likely a drug addict, who admits being a thief, be believed in a court room? Are sting operations in a country this size even feasible? A conviction is unlikely to begin with. Especially without anti-mafia laws.

We do have anti-money laundering laws and until the changes the government is now introducing, they could be used as a temporary inconvenience for these racketeers. While you try to secure their conviction using the flimsy laws we do have, a temporary asset freeze could stop or at least slow down the racket.

Or did it? If, prior to their arrest, the accused was happy to transact a big part of their operation in cash without any audit trail how does an asset freeze stop them from doing that? If they are hired as a “consultant” by the “new” operators of their business, what stops them sharing the cash? If, prior to their arrest, the accused used their shop as a front for their unlawful activities, what would stop them using their minimum wage contract as a consultant as a front to retain their old business, even though an asset freeze was supposed to take it away from them?

And now see how the new law will make conviction even unlikelier without causing the accused the temporary inconvenience of finding ways of working around an asset freeze. One thief of many is caught and they blab to the police that they sold this jeweller stolen gold. How much was stolen can be worked out from the value of the theft they are investigating. They go to the jeweller, charge them with selling stolen goods and freeze from their assets the equivalent of the stolen gold they are supposed to have recycled from this one transaction.

In the meantime, the accused continues to trade the stolen gold that came in the week before and the gold coming in next week. And so on. Which means that they retain the resources and the means to racket their way to the outcome they want. You can’t fight the mafia with its gun to your head. And yet here we are making sure they have one.

Look, George Tabone did suffer an injustice. Even if he were guilty as fuck – and I’m not saying he was because two courts already said he wasn’t – his 8-year wait for a final decision was utterly unfair. It is, I do believe, a breach of his fundamental rights.

You see the delays are the problem. That’s how we are abusing people’s human rights. That’s what the government should be fixing pronto.

But that is not what George Tabone came to Times of Malta to argue. He didn’t say that once he was accused, he should have faced his first trial within a year and had his appeal decided within the next one, which would not be blindingly fast, but it should be eminently reasonable. If he did, I’d have sympathised.

Instead, George Tabone is arguing the government’s case. The government is legislating something else together. The government is letting matters drag for 8 years because they can’t be arsed to fix the problems they cause. What’s changing is that during those 8 years the government is making sure that if a jeweller was reselling stolen gold nothing would stop them from continuing their thriving trade.

The country belongs to the mafia.