El Hiblu three: Court told accused were a calming influence on rescued migrants

Court told the three men accused of hijacking the El Hiblu had been calming down the rest of the 108 migrants on board

The merchant vessel El Hiblu 1 berthed in Malta after it was stormed by a special unit of the Armed Forces of Malta
The merchant vessel El Hiblu 1 berthed in Malta after it was stormed by a special unit of the Armed Forces of Malta

Two migrants rescued by the merchant vessel El Hiblu 1 have testified that the three men accused of hijacking the ship had been calming down the rest of the 108 migrants on board, some of whom were considering jumping overboard.

Three youths, two from Guinea and one from the Ivory Coast, aged 15, 16 and 19, stand charged with terrorism-related offences for unlawfully seizing control of the ship in March 2019. The accused face prison sentences of up to 30 years in duration if found guilty.

The first witness, Mohammed, told magistrate Nadine Lia that after they suspected that they were being taken back to Libya, “some in the group started saying that if they went to Libya they would be ill-treated and the three young men started to calm them down. Those that were very worried wanted to jump into the sea.”

He was one of seven witnesses summoned to testify today, of which only two were heard due to time constraints. The four-hour sitting was marred by ill-tempered exchanges between the prosecution and defence as well as translation-related complaints, in which defence counsel protested that the interpreter was not interpreting the court’s questions faithfully.

“We were on a small boat in the sea and a petrol tanker picked us up,” Mohammed said. After they were picked up, the captain told them that there was a communication with two larger ships coming from Europe. He told us to wait for the two big ships to arrive, he explained.

The captain said he had no right to go to Europe, but one of the two ships that were coming could take them to Europe, he said. “It was towards evening but there was still light. We asked them for food because we hadn’t eaten in three days. Captain said he had no food to give us and that we had to wait for the two big ships. They would give us food and take us to Europe,” he said.

“While we were waiting, night fell. Everyone fell asleep. Some of us were feeling sick, including myself. At around 4 am we realised that we were close to the Libyan coast.”

When they realised this, some fainted, he said. “The reason was that we were feeling that once we got under Libyan control we would have big problems.”

The rescued migrants who spoke English were looking after the children, he said. Others were looking after the sick persons. “We asked the English speakers to talk to the captain. Through them he told us to remain calm.”

Inspector Omar Zammit, prosecuting, asked why the need for calm, implying that there was unrest.

“The captain told us to remain calm because some of us were shaking and so where the children, because they had not eaten.”

As Zammit probed the witness on the migrant’s reactions, Mohammed’s answers became somewhat evasive – something the court picked up on. The magistrate asked what he did and saw, he said “myself I did nothing, I was crying.” He said he saw the misery of the people there.

Asked by the court as to what had made him conclude that, he replied “we were sick, hungry. I felt there was a situation of misery because I was not well and was feeling that the Libyans would kill us and I would die even if we did not fall into their hands.”

He told the court that the three accused went to calm the group down, and urged those who were worried to pray instead. Some four individuals threatened to jump into the sea, he said.

“At one point the captain emerged from his cabin and asked if there was anyone who understood English and the group pointed to a teenager [one of the accused] who did,” the witness said through the court-appointed interpreter.

Mohammed added that he could not understand what was said between the accused and the captain because they spoke in English and he did not speak that language. While one of the accused spoke with the captain, the other two remained with the rest of the group urging them not to worry, he said.

Asked if he knew them, the witness said no, and added that one of those who stayed behind was also from Ivory Coast.

He explained they had been rescued by the El Hiblu 1 sometime after they had seen an aircraft. He told the court that the captain told them the aircraft had communicated with it informing El Hiblu 1 of the rubber boat.

 While the group was being transferred to the merchant vessel, some six individuals stayed put, saying that they would proceed with the journey to Europe on the rubber boat and refused assistance. Their fate is unknown.

 Once on board, he said the captain had told them that the aircraft had indeed spotted them and had informed the vessel that two other ships would come for them and take them to Europe.

The second witness, from the Ivory Coast, told the court that the first time he saw the three accused was as they were pacifying the others, who had become concerned when they saw lights which they thought was the Libyan coast.

The captain decided that he wanted the trio to calm everyone down because of their interactions with them, said the witness.

“How did he choose the three to join him?” asked the court.  “They looked like good people,” replied the witness. “How did he reach this conclusion?” “Because he could see they were calming the situation.”

Lawyer Cedric Mifsud complained that the interpreter was not interpreting court’s questions faithfully.

Asked why the captain’s door was locked, he said the Captain opened it to let the three men in. He adds another reason for inviting the three men into the cabin - their knowledge of a language they all spoke (English).

“After some time, only one of the three young men came out of the cabin to speak to the people outside. He told them to trust in God and not to worry.”

The court observed that the witness was concluding that the captain changed course because he saw this misery. How did he reach this conclusion, asked Magistrate Lia. “He was worried that some people wanted to jump into the sea,” replied the witness.

The court asked how many times the witness had gone into the cabin himself. “I never went into the cabin.”

“How many times did he speak to the captain?” “Never”

“So how does he know that the captain decided for these reasons?” asked the court, to no satisfactory answer.

The witness said that when Armed Forces of Malta soldiers had boarded the vessel, the rescued people were all sitting down and insisted that they had been seated all the time.

“We were sitting down when the soldiers came on board,” he said.

The case continues on Tuesday afternoon.

Lawyers Gianluca Cappitta and Cedric Mifsud appeared for the defendants. Inspector Omar Zammit and AG lawyer George Camilleri prosecuted.