El Hiblu hijack: rescued migrant tells court he saw no weapons​

Witness tells court accused helped calm rescued migrants who were 'screaming and crying' and wanted to jump into the water when they realised that they were being returned to Libya

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

A migrant rescued at sea by the tanker El Hiblu told a court that three youths accused of hijacking the ship helped calm down panicked asylum seekers.

The incident happened in March 2019 and according to the witness rescued migrants reacted badly when it dawned on them that they were being returned to Libya.

Testifying in court today, the witness said he had been “vomiting blood” at the prospect of being returned to the war-torn country.

He said the crew had been hospitable to the rescued migrants and also denied claims that the youths had been carrying weapons when they went to speak to the captain.

“Why did he have to calm the people down?” asked prosecutor George Camilleri. “Because the people noticed the captain had changed direction towards Libya and wanted to jump into the water,” replied the witness.

Towards the end of the gruelling four-hour sitting before Magistrate Nadine Lia this afternoon, defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud asked for more detail on the threat of jumping into the sea. “Were people crying?” he asked.

“Yes. People were going to jump into the sea and they were crying and screaming,” the witness said.

“Was it in relation to Libya?” Mifsud asked. “When the captain re-directed to Libya, they were screaming and crying.”

“Were they panicking?” continued the lawyer. “Yes, yes they panicked as well... I was sick, I was vomiting blood.”

 The witness confirmed that the accused had gone to speak to the captain after the screaming and shouting had started. “After that, they were called by the captain,” suggested the lawyer, to which the witness replied in the affirmative.
“They didn’t want to go to Libya because they would be mistreated. The crew gave them food and water,” he said. 

The accused were not violent towards the crew, added the witness.

Asked by the prosecution whether the accused had anything in their hands, the witness replied in the negative. “Nobody had anything,” he said.

Today’s was the fourth witness to give such an account, but in the very early stages of the compilation of evidence, the court heard one AFM officer say that the captain of the El Hiblu had told them that his vessel was “under attack” and “under piracy.”

“Situation is very bad, very bad on board. My vessel under piracy. Am going to Malta proceeding to Valletta now,” the ship captain had repeated over the radio to a circling AFM aircraft.

The ship’s captain had also testified in 2019, telling the court that although there was no violence, he had locked himself in his cabin with the crew as they were outnumbered.

Today’s witness told the court that he had not seen the captain’s cabin from where he was standing on the boat but that the accused had “gone up and then came back down and stayed with us.”

The three are pleading not guilty to charges of having seized control of the ship through the use or threat of force and intimidation.

Under Malta's criminal code, unlawfully seizing control of ship is considered terrorist activity. If found guilty, they face between seven and 30 years behind bars.

Language barrier still a problem

Earlier on, as the sitting began, the court appointed a new Francophone interpreter for the accused, after the defence filed an application expressing doubts as to the previous interpreter’s work.

But this was not the end of the language trouble for the court. Asked by defence lawyer Neil Falzon, the witness was asked if he spoke and understood French. He speaks Bambara, a language widely spoken on the African continent, replied the witness. “I speak French but there are French words which I do not know or understand.”

The court dictated a note, pointing out that the court had observed him communicating

with the French interpreter and responding to her questions.

The prosecution argued that the witness had testified in French for over 30

minutes last month. “In the past month, something has changed and the witness only wants to speak Bambara. Our position is that the witness has to testify. We believe that the witness can speak. The court doesn’t want perfect French, but we believe the witness

can testify.”

Prosecuting lawyer George Camilleri from the Office of the Attorney General underlined that these witnesses “had testified in French and now wanted to be spoken to in Bambara. What the court is seeing is witnesses literally parroting what was raised in the application filed by their lawyers,” he said.

The Attorney General “reserved his capacity to request further inquiries into

this matter,” warned Camilleri.

“Our position is simple,” replied defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud. “The witness comes from West Africa. The interpreter he found was a French interpreter, who had a difficulty [in translating with precision]. I think he speaks a bit of French but is not comfortable answering questions in it. Bambara is spoken in a vast area of the African continent. Let’s try and accommodate because these people face life imprisonment.”

He pointed out that the language issue had cropped up in the past three sittings. “All we’re saying is that there must be an interpreter that they feel comfortable with.”

But the court, having heard a third interpreter confirm on oath that the witness was “fully understanding the interpreter’s French and was replying consistently in French, and was confirming with the interpreter repeatedly that he understands French, is duly convinced that the witness is capable of testifying in French” and ordered that he continue to give evidence in the French language.

The case continues in October.

The names of the accused are prohibited from publication by court order.

Lawyers Gianluca Cappitta, Malcolm Mifsud and  Cedric Mifsud are appearing for the accused. Lawyer Neil Falzon appeared on behalf of the Aditus Foundation. Lawyer George Camilleri is representing the office of the Attorney General in the proceedings. Inspector Omar Zammit is prosecuting.