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Former Malta Whistleblower's Husband Arrested in Greece, Then Released

Αssociated Press

FILE - This April 4, 2016 file photo shows Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in Malta on Oct. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Jon Borg, File)

ATHENS -- The husband of a whistleblower who was a source for slain Maltese anti-corruption investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was arrested in Greece on the request of Cypriot authorities but then released, complaining he was the target of fabricated charges.

Pantelis Varnava – a citizen of Greece and Cyprus - is married to a Russian, Maria Efimova, who worked for Malta's Pilatus Bank that later fell after she worked with Galizia before fleeing to Greece, where she was also held for a time.

He is being accused by Cypriot officials with fraud, embezzlement, forgery and money laundering, according to a document he shared with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP,) a group of Balkan-based investigative journalism sites.

He denied any wrongdoing and his lawyer said the charges are a further attempt by Cyprus and Malta to get the couple after she helped Galizia expose corruption at the highest level before she was killed by a car bomb in 2017.

Efimova's information helped Galizia expose a dirty money trail from her bank to Azarbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, and Michelle Muscat, the wife of Maltese ex-Premier Joseph Muscat, to whom he had allegedly been sending payments.

None of them were prosecuted and a trial accusing a Malta businessman of being the mastermind in Galizia's killing and having ties to the former government Muscat, which fell under pressure, has been delayed.

Maltese authorities said they couldn't veritify Efimova's claims and instead charged her with perjury without explaining why if the information wasn't valid that it led to Galizia being killed.

Efimova and her husband faced arrest warrants from Cypriot authorities in January of 2018 who charged her with stealing funds from I.F.D. Fragrance Distribution Co. Limited, a Cypriot firm where she had previously worked. 

Months later, Efimova was also issued an arrest warrant by Maltese authorities for allegedly embezzling several thousand euros from Pilatus bank and defaming public officials. 

She subsequently turned herself in at a police station in Greece, where she fled in 2017 and Greek courts turned down Malta's extradition request because there wasn't sufficient evidence and that the alleged offenses were insignificant.

OCCRP, following the events, said that in a Facebook post, Efimova claimed her husband's arrest was made under the “same ridiculous charges” filed against her three years ago, pushed by what she said were corrupt accusers in Cyprus and Malta.

He told OCCRP that he had never worked at the company he was being accused of stealing from, and that he has also “had nothing to do with its director.”

His lawyer, Dionysis Verras, called the accusations “fabricated” and “rigged,” saying that it served as a “continuation in a chain of European warrants which started a few years ago with his wife.” 

“I realized that there was something wrong with the case of this person. “There’s something much more serious, and they are trying to implicate him because of another more serious matter which apparently has a procedural, vindictive character,” Verras said, without any elaboration.