Update 2 | 'I was just a passenger,' man accused of people smuggling tells jury

Hadish Abayu, accused of people smuggling, has told jurors that he was one of the migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean, and not the smuggler

Hadish Abayu was charged 11 years ago with trafficking 181 persons into Malta by sea on 25 September 2005 (File photo)
Hadish Abayu was charged 11 years ago with trafficking 181 persons into Malta by sea on 25 September 2005 (File photo)

A man accused of people smuggling has testified in his own trial this afternoon, telling jurors that he had been mistaken for one of the organisers of the smuggling operation by the other passengers.

58-year-old Hadish Abayu is on trial, accused of people smuggling and complicity in the trafficking of persons. Prosecutors believe him to be one of the masterminds behind the 2005 voyage from Libya to Italy, but which ended up in Malta.

Abayu took the witness stand this afternoon, the prosecution having earlier informed the court that it had presented all its evidence.

Abayu testified in English and began by expressing gratitude to the Maltese authorities for allowing him to undergo due process.

The accused told the jurors that he had spent ten years in Sudan before travelling to Libya in 2003. He had tried to come to Malta to join his wife and four children, who had already been on the island since 2005.

“Two times I paid to come to Europe. They (the organisers) take our money and run away,” he told jurors. “We were 187 people waiting on the coast (of Libya). We had to pay money before being allowed on board the boat. I was a passenger like the others. The Libyans split us in three groups to save time, to pay the money.”

The accused said that he had been chosen to collect the money by Osman, one of the Libyan organisers, because he is an Arabic speaker and was older that the other passengers. He had collected the money for one group of 55 people. “I collected $46,000 dollars,” including his own $1,000 payment, before giving the payment to Osman in front of everyone.

Abayu said the group had been discovered on the coast by a police patrol and six people were arrested. Abayu had run away with the others.

“We were supposed to go to Italy but when we were close to Malta the captain said there was a problem with the motor and he decided to change course. When we arrived in Malta some people started asking questions about the six who had been arrested in Libya and the money they had paid. They reported me to the police because they had seen me collect the money from them. I told the police then what I am telling you now. When I collected the money for Osman in Libya, I did not realise that I was creating problems for myself.”

He denied being a people smuggler, arguing that he would have stayed in Libya, not risked his life at sea, had he made the kind of money that the traffickers made. Some of the passengers who had reported Abayu to the police had later realised their mistake and had apologised to him, he said.

Cross examined later today by lawyer Vincienne Vella, who is prosecuting on behalf of the Office of the Attorney General,Abayu said that he had planned to travel from Italy to London, where he would study and work to support his family. 

Vella confronted him with his earlier claim to lack the funds to support his family, asking how he could afford living and studying in London. The defendant replied that he had not checked about the cost of living in London when he had decided to embark on the voyage, which he had paid for using money he received from his wife’s family in Australia.

The court heard Abayu explain how he had spent his first eight months in Malta in a detention centre, before spending four months in prison for ‘unknown reasons,’ before another three-month spell in detention before being released. He had been told he had to sign at a police station every day, he said and admitted that he had broken the law when he absconded to Switzerland but said he had done so because no one wanted to employ him in Malta.

Abayu acknowledged that he had been aware that he had entered Malta illegally, but said that the only thing on his mind when he had accepted to collect the money for the traffickers was escaping from Libya.

Vella also highlighted that, in a statement he had released to police in 2005, Abayu had claimed to have been betrayed by some of the passengers because of his political past. “They got it in their mind that, because I was a political commissioner in Eritrea, I was their enemy,” he said. He failed to give a coherent answer when Vella asked why he had now changed his story and was claiming that people had lied about him over the six passengers who never left Libya.

Earlier today, the jury was read a number of statements made to police by the people trafficked, in which they claim to have paid at least $1,000 for a place on a boat sailing from Libya to Italy.

The prosecution read out a statement by Mabrahatom Brahi Tahle, one of the 181 migrants who entered Malta aboard an overloaded boat in 2005, as the trial by jury of Abayu, entered its second day.

Judge Edwina Grima had heard how Brahi Tahle's ultimate intention was to go to Italy. “I met the accused for the first time when I was in Libya. He told me to pay him before I left...I paid Hadish in cash.” The Eritrean had said that Abayu was not working alone, but had organised the voyage together with other Libyans. The man told police that he had paid $700 to the accused and $300 to his associates.

The trial by jury of a 58-year-old Abayu from Ethiopia began yesterday, 11 years after he was charged with trafficking 181 persons into Malta by sea on 25 September 2005.

Abayu had been charged on June 9, 2006 but had absconded whilst out on bail, being arrested in Switzerland  and extradited to Malta in May 2016.

Lawyer Vincienne Vella from the office of the Attorney General is leading the prosecution. Abayu is being represented by lawyer Simon Micallef Stafrace.

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