El Hiblu 3: Witness says captain calmed them down and said he would bring them to Malta

Witness aboard tanker that rescued 100 asylum seekers testifies in court on terrorism charges filed against three teenagers accused of commandeering the ship

The merchant vessel El Hiblu 1
The merchant vessel El Hiblu 1

A witness has told a court of the confusion amongst the rescued migrants on board the El Hiblu tanker, when found they were being returned to Libya.

Fatima Bari took the witness stand against three youths, two from Guinea and one from the Ivory Coast, aged 15, 16 and 19, who stand charged with terrorism-related offences for unlawfully seizing control of the ship. The accused face prison sentences of up to 30 years in duration if found guilty.

The sensational case has attracted the support of Amnesty International, which says the three youths have been accused of terrorism charges when the boat was already committing an illegal return of people seeking asylum.

The members of the group of around 100 migrants who were rescued at sea are accused of having threatened the crew and forcing it to change course for Malta once they realised they were going to be returned to Libya, where they face persecution.

Bari, who told the court that she was nine months pregnant at the time, was cautioned that she had the right not to give evidence if she felt her evidence could incriminate her.

Police Inspector Omar Zammit asked her how she had arrived in Malta. “I arrived on 28 March 2019 on a boat,” she said. He asked what happened during the voyage to Malta. “We were in our boat, sailing all night till the morning. There was a plane on top of us and there was a pilot, he was circling us. Every time he was turning he could see we were in danger.”

"The man who saw us on the plane sent a signal to another boat," she said. “The big boat who received the signal came towards us to take us. The big boat asked us to come aboard but we refused. He told us that someone had sent him to take us. That’s how we ended up on the boat.”
The ship’s crew had filmed the migrants in distress and taken photos of them, she said.

With some difficulty, she explained through a translator that “we were on the boat all night and then they returned us to Libya. "In the morning we realised we were in Libya. That’s when people started screaming on the boat. The captain locked himself inside the cabin.”

Zammit asked what the people were screaming. “When he locked the cabin the people were signalling for him to open so he can speak to them. But why did the captain lock himself in the cabin?” repeated the prosecuting police inspector.

“Because we started crying and saying we wanted to speak to him because he took us back to Libya,” replied the witness.

The men on the boat spoke to the captain, she said. “I don’t know what they spoke about. After that, he told us to calm down and said he would bring us here.”

Zammit then started warning the witness to testify in good faith since the accused had said something totally different on oath. “I was 9 months pregnant at the time. I was traumatised... I am giving the information about what I know,” replied the witness..

When Magistrate Nadine Lia told the inspector that he could declare the witness a hostile witness, defence lawyer Neil Falzon protested, arguing that “it is somewhat prejudicial to assume that what she is saying is not the truth. She is saying the exact same version as others.”

“Except one of the accused under oath,” quipped the inspector.

The woman clarified that she was not in the cabin with the captain and could see that he was taking them back to international waters. “I could see that he was taking us back to Libya. Everyone started screaming. All the women on the boat were crying. The captain refused to open because he didn’t want to speak to us,” she said. “But when he saw everyone screaming, he opened the cabin and spoke to us. That’s when he brought us to Malta.”

She recognised the accused men from the voyage but said that the men were staying apart from the women, explaining that she could not tell what the men were doing. “The women were staying in a section and were not mixing with the men,” she said. “After I was taken to hospital in Malta, I heard that the men were taken to prison.”

She didn’t remember what they did, she said.

Asked whether she recalled what the men were carrying in their hands at the time, she replied: “I don’t remember anything.”

Inspector Zammit informed the court that the police were having trouble tracking all of the witnesses, which number over 100. Some had moved away from Hal Far and were proving difficult to trace, he said.

The court asked for a list of the remaining witnesses, noting that the defence would be submitting a note listing the witnesses that should be exempted by the court due to their age.

The magistrate urged the prosecution to bring as many witnesses as it could in every sitting, remarking that “one or two witnesses every week means this is never going to end.”

The case continues on 15 April. Lawyers Gianluca Cappitta and Neil Falzon appeared for the defendants. Inspector Omar Zammit prosecuted.