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Former Malta Bank Whistleblower Efimova Wants Asylum in Greece

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 -- Fearing for her safety, a Russian woman who blew the whistle on corruption in Malta and was a key source for murdered investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia is seeking asylum in Greece, where she lives with her husband.

Maria Efimova, whose husband Pantelis Varnava is a citizen of Greece and Cyprus, had fled Malta but is still being sought there and on Cyprus on charges she said are fabricated to get her for revealing the truth. 

Varnava was arrested in Greece on Nov. 17 on a request from Cypriot authorities but released, saying accusations by Cypriot officials of fraud, embezzlement, forgery and money laundering are a sham.

That was 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 were a further attempt by Cyprus and Malta to get the couple after she helped Caruana Galizia expose corruption at the highest level before the journalist was killed by a car bomb in 2017, a businessman said to be the mastermind still not on trial.

Efimova worked at Pilatus Bank and gave information on its operations to Galizia that was said to reveal that a secret Panama-based company – Egrant, – belonged to Michelle Muscat, the wife of former prime minister Joseph Muscat.

His government and the bank fell after Caruana Galizia's murder that showed the island to be so corrupt it was the feature of an American documentary and media reports tying mobsters to government officials.

Efimova was initially an anonymous source for Caruana Galizia, but when the official investigation started her identity was revealed by the inquiring magistrate’s assistant, leading her to flee to Greece with her husband and two children.

After her husband's release she approached Yanis Varoufakis, leader of the DiEM25 party in Parliament and a former finance minister for the previous ruling Radical Left SYRIZA and asked for his help, aware of his sympathy for whistleblowers, said Open Democracy.

“At this point, going public, sharing my story with the world, is all I have left to protect myself and my family. Like an insurance policy in case something was to happen to us,” she said.

“The source which exposed a money laundering and corruption scheme involving Malta’s former prime minister is now under fierce attack by Malta, Cyprus and a corporate, murderous establishment willing to do anything to silence her. We will fight to protect her, just as we do with other champions of transparency and freedom of information such as Julian Assange,” said Varoufakis, the site reported.

Varoufakis announced that MeRA25 will soon file a request in the Hellenic Parliament for Efimova to be granted asylum, as well as a legislative initiative to enhance Greece’s whistleblower protection laws.

Efimova said that, “By going against my husband on made-up charges they are just trying to exert pressure on me, this is another twist in the plot,” although a Greek court in 2018 rejected Malta's request to extradite her.

She said the charges on Cyprus came after she and her family briefly lived there, claiming he never worked for the company from which he is accused of stealing money. He faces an extradition hearing, is not allowed to leave Greece and must check in with police regularly.

She said she has been threatened on Facebook. “Comeback to Malta or else we are going to find you one way or other. You have dues to pay here, you frickin liar!!!” she said was one post against her, for which she filed a police report and complained to the site.

Renata Ávila, a member of DiEM25´s Coordinating Collective and legal advisor on Julian Assange’s defense team, said the pressure on Efimova was another example of what whistleblowers face.

“This is an urgent call for the whole EU to accelerate their implementation of the EU Whistleblowing directive. The level of violence and corruption truth tellers face and the failure of our institutions to protect them cannot continue,” she said.

“Maria´s case is a test for Europe’s courage; it is the opportunity to act fast as a community, beyond borders, and live up to its commitment to effectively protect and guarantee whistleblowers’ safety and their right to a life free from fear of persecution and retaliation,” she added.

Efimova, however, said she believes her ordeal will get worse and more dangerous, saying continued arrest warrants and a new perjury charge on Malta is putting her family under financial pressure, a common tactic against whistleblowers.

 “Legal costs are mounting, and we will soon be financially destroyed,” she said. “This is part of their vindictive strategy: to silence me,” she said.

She added that she still has information and evidence related to Caruana Galizia’s investigation of illegal transactions, without explaining why she hasn't released it.