Updated | Ship captain repeatedly told army officers his vessel was ‘under piracy’

Three youths charged with piracy in the aftermath of the El Hiblu sea hijack were back in court on Tuesday

Migrants disembarking in Malta from the El Hiblu after an army special unit boarded the ship and wrested back control
Migrants disembarking in Malta from the El Hiblu after an army special unit boarded the ship and wrested back control

The captain of a ship hijacked by rescued migrants kept repeating that he was not in control, under pressure and “under piracy”, the court heard on Tuesday morning.

The merchant ship, El Hiblu, had picked up more than 100 migrants off the Libyan coast but was forced by the rescued people to change course towards Malta when they realised they were going to be taken back to Libya.

Three youths were charged with piracy after the ship was allowed to disembark in Malta.

The young men from Guinea and the Ivory Coast pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a prison sentence of between seven and 30 years.

They also stand charged with illegal arrest of the crew, changing the course of the vessel and causing the crew to fear violence being used against them, amongst others.

Inspector Omar Zammit took the witness stand, telling the magistrate that the men were part of a group of migrants rescued at sea. When the ship was instructed to change course and return the migrants to Libya, some five individuals had seized control of the vessel.

“We prefer death than having to return to Libya,” one of the hijackers is reported to have told the captain.

The inspector confirmed that no physical violence took place during the hijack but said that the threat of it was clear.

One English-speaking migrant told the captain that they would hurt themselves or damage the ship with tools they had seized. Around 20 to 25 persons then started banging tools on the ship.

Under cross-examination, the police inspector was asked by lawyer Malcolm Mifsud, who is appearing for the accused, whether he knew what was happening in Libya.

“From the news, yes,” replied the inspector.

The police officer confirmed that no firearms were found on board the ship by the Armed Forces of Malta personnel who boarded the vessel and wrested back control.

A high-ranking officer from AFM testified that it was notified of a “red ship on a northern course” in Libyan waters by EUNAVFOR MED.

During routine questioning the ship informed the authorities that it had migrants on board and was going to head north.

The AFM assigned its King Air aircraft to oversee and assist in the operation. The aircraft made contact with the captain of the El Hiblu and asked him what his intentions were and was told that he was on course for Valletta and that he could not switch off the engines, repeating this twice.

“My vessel under attack, my vessel under piracy. I can’t talk anymore… My vessel under piracy now,” he then said.

The ship was in Libyan SAR at the time, the army officer said.

The court heard how the captain kept repeating over and over again that he was “under piracy”.

The AFM aircraft could also hear Tripoli port calling the vessel but the ship’s captain declared that he was not hearing their communications.

“Situation is very bad, very bad on board. My vessel under piracy. Am going to Malta proceeding to Valletta now,” the ship captain repeared.

Before it had to return to base, the AFM aircraft asked the vessel’s master if he was in command of the vessel and the reply was: “Not in command, not in command, under pressure.”

The army aircraft warned the ship that it did not have permission to enter Maltese territorial waters. When this declaration was made, the vessel was about to exit the Libyan SAR area into Malta’s SAR, some 80 to 90 nautical miles from Malta.

The army officer testified: “The Libyan coastguard later informed us that the vessel had suddenly changed course and was informed that some people had taken command of the vessel - probably against the will of the master of the vessel.”

The case is being heard in front of Magistrate Aaron Bugeja.

Lawyers Neil Falzon, Gianluca Cappitta and Malcolm Mifsud entered not guilty pleas for the accused.

The case continues.

The court has prohibited the publication of the names of the accused and the AFM witnesses.

A soldier who participated in the search of the vessel said that they had not found any weapons on the vessel, but there were tools and other items scattered around the ship which could have been used as arms improper.

The owner of the El Hiblu 1 also took the stand today. Salah Ali Mohammed El Hiblu told the court that his place of residence is Tripoli. The court cautioned the witness that some questions could incriminate him and explained that in that case he was free not to answer them. The witness declared that he wished to testify.

“I built the ship in 2015 in Turkey,” he began. Asked where the ship was destined for, he said it was in Turkey for drydock and then directed to Tripoli port “to stay there to work.” He had been informed by the Italian coastguard that they wished to make contact with the vessel.

He gave the Italian authorities the contact details of the ship after being told that it was required to save lives. It rescued some 100 people from a rubber boat in distress. The rescued people wanted to go to Italy or Malta, but the captain, as per instruction set course to the nearest Libyan port.

When they realised they were near Tripoli, the migrants forced the captain to go to Italy or Malta, "but he didn’t have enough fuel to go to Italy so he went to Malta."

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