AG 'needs more time' to decide on whether to indict El Hiblu three, court told

Four years on, Attorney General still undecided whether or not to indict three men on terrorist offences

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

The Attorney General is yet to decide on whether or not to indict three men rescued at sea in 2019 by the container ship El Hiblu 1 on charges which include terrorist offences, a court has been told this morning.

If indicted, the men will have to face a criminal trial before the superior courts and the prospect of imprisonment for life. If no indictment is filed, their case will be decided by a magistrate.

The three young men – Abdalla, Kader and Amara – known as the El Hiblu three, hailing from Ivory Coast and Guinea, stand accused of hijacking the ship that had rescued them, by allegedly coercing the captain into not transporting them -and the rest of the 108 people his crew had plucked from the sea - back to Libya, where they feared persecution and torture.

The Maltese authorities accused the three youths of being the ringleaders of what had initially been described as a piracy incident, charging them with a series of serious offences, some under counter-terrorism legislation.

The three youths deny any wrongdoing and are pleading not guilty.

During their initial arraignment the prosecuting police inspector had confirmed that no physical violence had been employed by the men in the incident, but he said that there had been a “clear threat” of it. 

The inspector had testified that one English-speaking migrant, acting as a spokesperson for the rescued group had told the captain that the migrants would “hurt themselves or damage the ship with tools they had seized.” Around 20-25 people had then started banging tools on the ship, he said.

But as the case progressed over the years, the court has heard a large number of the rescued migrants contradict the version of events that had initially been given to the court by the captain of the ship in April 2019.

The captain had claimed that the crew had locked themselves in the bridge as the migrants had acted aggressively. Transcripts of the captain radioing for assistance, telling the Maltese authorities that the vessel was “under piracy” and claiming that some crew members had been injured had been read out in court. The captain was also the only witness to mention injuries in the four years of witness testimony, however.

International human rights bodies, Amnesty International and Sea Watch amongst them, have repeatedly called upon the Maltese authorities to drop the charges, but so far the authorities have resisted doing so.

In the face of what at this stage can, in good conscience, only be described as overwhelming evidence that the piracy claim was an exaggeration, the Attorney General inexplicably continues to dither on whether or not to indict the young men.

When the compilation of evidence continued this morning before magistrate Nadine Lia, the magistrate observed that the Office of the Attorney General had filed a note yesterday, asking for more time to decide whether to file a bill of indictment. The court therefore sent the acts of the case back to the Attorney General, with the case now being expected to continue in June.

Inspectors Omar Zammit and Jeffrey Cutajar are prosecuting on behalf of the Commissioner of Police.

Lawyers Neil Falzon, Cedric Mifsud and Gianluca Cappitta are assisting the accused.