El Hiblu captain approached the accused, court told as controversial hijack case continues

It was the captain of the oil tanker El Hiblu who had approached the three men accused of hijacking it, one of the rescued men has told a magistrate

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

It was the captain of the oil tanker El Hiblu who had approached the three men accused of hijacking it, calling them into his cabin after seeing them calming down the panicking migrants it had rescued, one of the rescued men has told a magistrate.

The court compiling evidence against three young men accused of hijacking the oil tanker El Hiblu after it plucked them and 105 others from the Mediterranean Sea in 2019, continued hearing witnesses today, being told by one of the rescued migrants that it had been the captain who approached the three accused.

Adam Sanovo from Ivory Coast was amongst the witnesses who took the stand as the case against the accused men continued before magistrate Nadine Lia this afternoon. He had been on a small boat that had left Libya, before being spotted by an aircraft that had circled the boat. The El HIblu had approached them some 30 minutes later, he said.

“We were told that the plane had told them to go there. The captain told us we must not be afraid.”

There were people on board who had worked in Libya and told the passengers that they were going to Libya. “Nobody of the passengers wanted to go to Libya. They were saying they wanted to jump off the ship.” They were saying this amongst themselves, he added.

The witness explained that the accused had exerted a calming influence on the rescued migrants, migrants, bypassing on the captain’s message that they would not be returned to Libya, but would be taken to Europe, adding that “I know that thanks to them we became calm and nobody got hurt.”

“The Maltese men had come to the ship in three small boats, they were wearing khaki uniforms. They did not declare who they were,” said the witness. “It was the captain who said that they were Maltese.”

Sanovo’s testimony was interrupted when from the back of the courtroom, a man, later identified the witness' roommate, was heard trying to speak to him in French, twice. The magistrate accused him of suggesting answers to the witness and ordered him to leave. The man initially ignored the court’s orders, to loud protests from the prosecution bench. After taking down his details, the court repeated its order, telling him to get out of the courtroom immediately, at which point he complied.

After that defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud continued his cross-examination, with the witness saying the ship’s engines had been turned off after the rescue and then switched on later in the evening.

The next morning, he woke up and saw that the boat approaching a country, he said. He didn’t know what country it was, but people were saying that it was Libya. At that point, some of the migrants started crying and shouting and some wanted to jump off the ship, he said.

“They were very scared of returning to Libya”, he explained.

Mifsud suggested that they feared torture and imprisonment if they returned to Libya. He replied in the affirmative. “We were panicking. Me too.” The accused “did not panic, though. They were calming people.” Seeing this, the captain had called them to his cabin.

“Am I correct to say that it was the captain who went to them, not they went to the captain?” asked Mifsud. “It was him who came close. The captain” replied the witness.

“No shouting, no violence,” the witness said in reply to another question, also stating that no weapons or objects were in their hands.

“After starting the engines, the captain turned the boat in another direction,” he said.

“Am I correct to say that the migrants didn’t want to go specifically to Malta, but only to Europe?” asked the lawyer. “Yes to Europe, not Malta,” replied the witness.

“Am I correct to say that before the Maltese boarded, everything was calm?” “Yes, it was calm before they came on the boat. When they came on the boat, they saw that everybody was calm,” he said.

Two other witnesses testified this afternoon, one, Abduli Selah, from Gambia claimed not to have seen anything whilst on board, citing a temporary eye complaint for which he had later received treatment for. He denied hearing any commotion or disturbance on the vessel. “That ship is not a small ship, you understand, and we weren’t together.” He said he was not aware of any violence being used against anyone on board and neither had he seen any weapons. Selah said he did not know about any hijack. “Me I tell you, these people they took us from the sea and help us….me I don’t see any violence, any hijack at sea.”

At one point, it was pointed out to the court that the witness was wearing an earpiece whilst testifying. He removed it at the orders of the court and placed his mobile on the registrar’s desk.

A delegation from Amnesty International also attended today’s sitting. The delegation had reportedly asked for a meeting with the Attorney General, in order to push for the dropping of terrorism charges against the men, but told the press that they had not yet received a reply.

An international commission set up specifically in the light of this case is urging the authorities to dismiss the charges against the three accused, insisting that they had acted as translators and mediators between the captain and survivors.

Amnesty International has also called for the charges to be dropped and flagged the case in its annual Write for Rights campaign.

The case continues in February.

Police Inspector Omar Zammit is prosecuting, together with lawyer George Camilleri from the Office of the Attorney General.