El Hiblu 3: Witness and accused fined for contempt

Court told that no fighting was seen or heard between the accused and captain

The wife of one of the men accused of hijacking a ship which rescued them from the sea in 2019, told a court she did not hear any fighting between the three accused and the captain.

During the same sitting, both she and one of the accused were fined for contempt of court.

Nica Babi Souwa Estes from Guinea testified before Magistrate Nadine Lia in the compilation of evidence against her husband, one of the 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 tanker El Hiblu had picked up around 200 people in distress on a boat fleeing Libya in March 2019. After being directed to return them to Libya, the captain changed course for Malta, claiming he had been hijacked.

Before taking the witness stand, Souwa was informed that being the wife of one of the accused, she could not be compelled to testify. She expressed her intention to testify nonetheless.

“I was in Libya waiting for an opportunity to come here,” Souwa said, having travelled by car from Guinea to Libya, and then to Malta by boat. “When the captain of the big ship took us [on board]… he told us that it was a plane that told him to take us. We were not on the ship when he told us this.”

After some hours the captian spoke to the men. “We were women together, in the early morning we heard the men saying Tripoli, Libya, Libya, Libya. Immediately there were other men who wanted to jump into the sea. The women fell on the floor. There were children crying.”

There were two young men who were talking gently to the others, she said.

“Soon after the captain came out of the cabin and called in the three men, these two and a third one who is not here today,” Souwa said.

She said she didn’t know the third man’s name. But the court didn’t believe her, pointing out that he had been a defendant in these proceedings for the past two years. “We do not frequent each other,” Souwa replied. Prosecuting officer Inspector Omar Zammit asked the court to warn the witnesses about the consequences of perjury.

Defence lawyer Gianluca Cappitta stood up for the witness. “She is testifying on what she saw…we are gathering evidence to learn the truth. The prosecution has decided that some people are giving the right evidence and others not.”

“I was towards the back of the ship. I was with my husband and other women when the Captain called those three,” Souwa went on, adding that her husband was one of the three men summoned to the bridge.

Souwa said the other men and women were calm, while her husband came down from the cabin to tell them that the captain would be taking them to Malta.  “The men were going up and down from the cabin… there was nobody in the cabin except the Captain as she could see from where she was standing, below.”

She explained that the cabin and the bridge are not exactly in the same place. The Inspector showed her a picture of the ship, asking her to indicate the position of the bridge. However, she said she had never seen a big ship before and could not indicate the position.

Pressed on this, she said: “now I don’t remember anything because I was feeling weak.”

What did she remember about that boat? asked the court.

“I don’t remember,” she replied. 

The witness was asked this question multiple times by the court but the witness did not reply, remaining mute. She studied the picture for several minutes in silence before she was declared in contempt of court and fined €50.  

“This is a very serious case, and you are required to reply… you are here to answer the questions,” said the court, stressing the serious consequences if she continued to defy the court. One of the accused was also fined for contempt after arriving late, halfway through the sitting.

“This is not the same boat with which we came to Malta. I remember the writing,” the woman said, but after a long pause, finally recognising the ship as the El Hiblu. “Ah, now I remember. This is the boat that brought us to Malta,” Souwa said through the court-appointed interpreter. She pointed to the name of the vessel, ‘El Hiblu’.

Cross-examined by defence lawyer Gianluca Cappitta, the woman said that the three accused were not in the cabin all the time. “At a certain time, there was one coming down and one going up.”

She said the cabin door was not open all the time, and that it was the captain who opened and closed the door, that the men had no weapons on them, and that she heard no fighting between the, and the captain.

The court scheduled the next 4-hour sitting for November. Lawyer George Camilleri from the Office of the Attorney General is assisting the prosecution.