Court cannot locate all witnesses rescued in El Hiblu ‘hijack’ case

Court hearing case against three asylum seekers accused of hijacking ship that rescued them, orders officials to update list of people rescued by El Hiblu

The merchant vessel El Hiblu 1 (photo: file photo)
The merchant vessel El Hiblu 1 (photo: file photo)

A court hearing the case against three asylum seekers accused of hijacking a ship that came to their aid has ordered officials to update the list of people rescued at sea by the tanker El Hiblu with their current whereabouts.

This was after representatives of the Refugee Commission and the Ministry for Home Affairs, National Security and Law Enforcement testified yesterday that they were not able to provide comprehensive information relating to the list of those rescued, together with their contact details. The court is trying to hear the testimony of every migrant involved in the 2019 sea rescue, numbering at over 100.

A third witness, one of the people picked up at sea by the vessel, was declared a hostile witness after claiming not to recognise anyone in the courtroom, prompting prosecuting inspector Omar Zammit to point out that he had personally seen the witness and one of the accused talking in a friendly manner outside the courtroom before the sitting.

Confronted about this by Magistrate Lia, the witness said he had got to know the accused in Malta through work but had not known him on the boat. “We will not make a mockery out of these proceedings,” the Magistrate warned, at which point Zammit requested the court declare the witness hostile.

The witness continued to give relatively vague answers and kept on insisting that he had not seen any commotion on board the vessel or anything abnormal about the trip. He said he did not see people wanting to jump into the sea or holding tools. “Everything was peaceful,” he said. He also mentioned a number of times that he had seen the captain handing out food to the people on board at different stages of the voyage.

Another witness, also one of those rescued at sea, also testified that he had not noticed anything abnormal about the voyage. He stressed that he had been exhausted and sick throughout and therefore could not recall much detail. He did not see any abnormalities or commotion on the vessel.

Prosecution and defence lawyers argued that the last two witnesses shared the same address, as they both lived in an Open Centre and could possibly have tainted their testimony. Presiding magistrate Nadine Lia stated that she was taking note of the prosecution’s statement but said that this fact was ultimately not being considered to reflect the value of the witness’ testimony.

The case was adjourned to 3 February, by which time the prosecution is to try and trace the migrants who are currently earmarked for relocation so as to preserve their testimony before their departure, where possible.

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