The murder of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017 as she probed corruption and organized crime ties at the highest level of government showed the extreme danger journalists and whistleblowers can face. A former employee of Pilatus Bank in Malta, Maria Efimova acted as a source for Daphne Caruana Galizia, blowing the whistle on suspected money laundering.
Efimova, a Russian national with experience in banking compliance and anti-money laundering procedures, went to work for Pilatus Bank in January 2016. She has told journalists that she felt that there was something wrong with the way the bank was being managed from the outset. She was reportedly reassured by colleagues who told her that the bank had close links to the Maltese government and that there was therefore no cause for concern.
In part, Efimova’s whistleblowing follows on from the Panama Papers, the major disclosure of internal documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The Panama Papers linked wealthy individuals and public officials around the world to the use of Panamanian shell companies that could be used for fraud, tax evasion and getting around international sanctions.
Based on the Panama Papers, Daphne Caruana Galizia had concluded that a Panamanian company called Egrant belonged to the Maltese Prime Minister’s wife. That company held an account at Pilatus and an unnamed bank in Dubai. Efimova provided the journalist with corroborating evidence about a group of suspicious financial transfers.
Efimova said she noticed that between January and March 2016, a Dubai-registered company owned by the daughter of Azerbaijan’s President, which also held an account at Pilatus, started making payments to Egrant’s Dubai account.
In March 2016, an attempted payment of US$1.07 million to Egrant was blocked by one of Pilatus’ two US correspondent banks. Efimova concluded that Pilatus was laundering money for Aliyeva and the Prime Minister’s wife and that this had likely been detected by financial authorities in the United States.
Efimova also told journalists that Pilatus officials had instructed her to falsify documents to present to officials of the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit (FIAU) at an on-site inspection and that the bank was effectively running a double operating system, with some transactions going through a representative in Turkey.
Efimova’s identity was revealed in the Maltese press in May 2017. In fear for her safety even before the killing of Ms Caruana Galizia, Efimova had fled to Greece, where Maltese authorities sought her extradition.
Efimova has said that she never planned to flee Malta. “A judge magistrate’s assistant gave my name to the press. After Caruana’s reports, I went to testify on everything I knew. I didn’t join a witness protection program, but the judge assured me my name would remain secret,” she said.
Maltese officials charged Efimova with allegedly providing false evidence that could lead to another’s conviction, making false accusations, and theft. This came after Caruana Galizia’s revelations had led to corruption probes which entangled the government of the Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat.
Muscat was re-elected in June 2017 and an inquiry he commissioned into the ownership of Egrant was concluded in July 2018. It is not known whether the inquiry has led to any police investigation.
Efimova’s failure to attend court proceedings related to Pilatus Bank in Malta resulted in a magistrate seeking a European arrest warrant. In October 2017, the journalist she had been communicating with, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was assassinated in a car bomb attack in Malta.
Efimova told the Greek courts she feared she would be killed if sent back to Malta, saying she was the only living witness who could provide evidence of corruption in the country’s political and financial world.
“Daphne is no longer here. The only witness will be me. This is why it is possible they don’t want me to exist,” she said. She told the Greek newspaper, Kathimerini, “It was I who first sent an email to Daphne. I had read her articles on the activities of Pilatus Bank. She had some information and I decided to help her. Before I left Pilatus, I had gathered evidence on its illegal activities”.
After the murder of Caruana Galizia, Maria Efimova has been portrayed as a liar and a Russian agent in the Maltese press, in stark contrast to her reception in Greece, where she is widely recognised as a whistleblower and a hero, who put herself at great personal risk in order to bring information about criminal activity and financial malfeasance to light.
The extradition request for Efimova was denied by Greek courts which said she would be in danger if she returned to Malta. Efimova said Malta sought European arrest warrants in retaliation for her whistleblowing. It was reported that Pilatus Bank’s license to operate was eventually withdrawn at the request of Malta’s Financial Services Authority.
Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder remains unsolved.
Maria Efimova raised serious allegations of financial crimes requiring independent investigation. Her case illustrates the critical relationship between the investigative journalist and the whistleblower. This partnership serves the public interest, as the legacy of Galizia’s investigative journalism so clearly shows.