By Jack Holland
A 58-year-old man of Irish Italian extraction from West Belfast is at the center of an arms smuggling case currently unfolding in Florida. Former car-salesman Maserati Meli was arrested on November 26 last year by an FBI Special Operations officer assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force. He was charged in connection with an attempt to acquire two .38 caliber revolvers to send to Northern Ireland. Meli also put down a $4,000 deposit towards the purchase of a further 20 handguns, the total cost of which would have been $15,000.
News of the case only leaked out last week when it was learned that Meli, who pleaded guilty to the above charge and a further charge of making false statements to a licensed firearms dealer, was going to be sentenced on March 26. He could receive up ten years.
Meli was arrested by Mark Hastbacka, the FBI agent responsible for breaking up a Provisional IRA arms smuggling effort in Florida in July 1999. That case led to the arrest and conviction of Conor Claxton, Anthony Smyth, Martin Mullan, and Siobhan Browne. Claxton, Smyth and Mullan all had links to the republican movement. The case was controversial, and brought allegations that the IRA was rearming. Opponents of the peace process alleged also that it proved the organization was not serious about taking the political route.
A reliable republican source in Belfast said that Meli had no links to the Provisional IRA whatsoever. Rita O’Hare, Sinn Fein’s spokesperson in the US, said that Meli was not a member of the party.
The question of what a 58-year-old man from West Belfast was doing buying weapons in Florida for export to Northern Ireland remains open. Meli was planning to ship the handguns hidden in motorcycles or cars. He told Hastbacka that he was doing it solely for profit, and the guns were intended for people in Northern Ireland and that “they are used for self-protection”. Meli said to the agent that he could sell a handgun which cost $361 in Florida for $1,000 in Belfast. Though Meli has pleaded guilty, he has refused to cooperate further with the investigators.
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While Meli has no known links to the IRA, Hastbacka was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying that this case resembled in some ways the 1999 IRA arms case.
What is known about the 58-year-old Belfast man is that he comes from a Falls Road Irish-Italian family which once owned a chain of fish-and-chip shops. On December 2 1972, Meli’s wife Sandra was shot dead in the kitchen of their home in a mainly loyalist district of East Belfast. The gunmen fired through an opaque window. The UDA carried out the killing. Sandra was Protestant and it was surmised at the time that she was murdered because she was married to a Catholic. However, it is believed that Meli himself was the target.
Since the late 1980s, Meli has worked as a car salesman in London. His son, who was seven at the time of his mother’s murder and now lives in London, pleaded for his father in a letter to the authorities:
“He has made a mistake! Please don’t keep him incarcerated long.”