Paradoxically the way in which previous violence was swept underneath the carpet, is now being raised in defence of one of the AFM soldiers accused of Zoto’s murder.
In the alphabetical index of countries Mali precedes Malta. Yet the two countries are worlds apart but for one deceased person of common interest. He was 32 years old and he was known as Zoto. Nicknames are popular in Malta, which is probably why we do not know this person's real name: One newspaper reported it was Mamadou Kamara and another as Abdalla Mohammed.
Zoto had been on the run for three years, after he had managed to escape from the Safi Detention Centre. Life on the run is not easy on a small island. Moreover, as most asylum seekers from former French-Africa, it is likely that Zoto spoke good French but poor English, which must have made communication with Maltese inhabitants even more difficult. Yet, he now speaks no more.
We do not know exactly what pushed Zoto to leave his homeland. We do know however that Malians inhabit one of the poorest 10 nations in the world. We also know that while democratic state structures were established 20 years, ethnic tensions are still very high.
Merely four months ago, military officers staged a coup against the Malian President's handling of a rebellion by the Tuareg minority. In this rebellion separatist Tuareg rebels seized control of the northern parts of Mali. Human Rights Watch reported war crimes by the rebels; including rape, use of child soldiers, and the pillaging of hospitals, schools, aid agencies, and government buildings. It also reported reprisals against minorities.
While most of us were relaxed and enjoying the start of the Imnarja long-weekend, little did we care about Mali or about the one Malian who turned up at the Floriana Health Centre for medical assistance. This is where Zoto was reportedly identified on Friday and where he was arrested. At this point his hours were counted.
Zoto died under the custody of the Armed Forces. It was reported that he was found dead with his hands tied inside a Detention Services van outside the Poala Health Centre. An autopsy revealed he had sustained violent blows to his groin and back and that he was allegedly kicked by military boots. It is no surprise that the media gave maximum attention to his death. Politicians also went into action as they tried to maximize/minimize damage (depending on which side they stand).
What was rather surprising was the readers' online comments, which reveal that people were more captivated by their anxiety on how we should deal with "burdens" such as Zoto. It may seem natural for most to orbit in our own confined territory and to seek to keep 'others' out but Zoto's demise is far more tragic than issues of "burden-sharing". His story is not about the duties of Europeans and international institutions; it is about the way in which we deal with OUR own responsibilities and OUR own committment to a human rights morality.
Zoto's death turns our attention to the methods used by state structures, which are supposed to protect people like him. It accentuates the fact that for many years we chose to turn a deaf ear to warnings coming from NGOs, human rights activists and international organisations like UNHCR, which have long been anxious with the way migrants are handled. For instance, UNHCR had long pointed out that it is "deeply concerned about the apparent use of excessive force by Maltese soldiers when breaking up a peaceful demonstration by asylum seekers and irregular immigrants".
Paradoxically the way in which previous violence was swept underneath the carpet, is now being raised in defence of one of the AFM soldiers accused of Zoto's murder. On Sunday, lawyer and MP Dr Franco Debono argued in court that the charge of voluntary homicide is excessive and he questioned whether this is a case of going from one extreme to another. He said: "In the past there were more serious cases where officers shot at migrants and were not arraigned."
The current investigation will clarify the course of events but nothing can excuse savage violence and nothing can justify the untimely death of this young man. Zoto's story must not end here. It must lead to changes that ensure people, whoever they are, are not treated as undesirable pests but as human beings with aspirations for a better future; as valid contributors to their community, wherever that may be.