Malta government paid for Libya pushbacks ‘three to four’ times, shipper reveals

Carmelo Grech, the owner of the Libyan-flagged fishing vessel Dar Es Salaam 1 has revealed that the Maltese government paid for pushbacks multiple times

File photo
File photo

The Maltese government paid for pushbacks by the Dar Es Salaam 1 “three to four times”, the vessel’s owner has told a judge this afternoon.

Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff is hearing the case against Prime Minister Robert Abela, National Security and Law Enforcement Minister Byron Camilleri and AFM Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi, filed by lawyers Paul Borg Olivier and Eve Borg Costanzi on behalf of 52 would-be asylum seekers who had been pushed back to Libya in the Spring of 2020.

Several witnesses testified today, but of particular interest was that of Carmelo Grech, the owner of the Libyan-flagged fishing vessel Dar Es Salaam 1.

Grech said that at the time, his boat had been in the Grand Harbour for between four and six weeks when he was approached by an AFM representative, whose name he didn’t know. The AFM gave him a set of coordinates of a dinghy, but the dinghy wasn’t found at first, he said. “We were closer to Lampedusa than Malta,” he recalled.

There were strong seas, and five people had died on board the dinghy. When he was informed, he relayed this fact to the AFM, who ordered that his crew bring on board the live ones first and then the dead.

Although he resisted the order, the dead were eventually lifted onto the fishing boat.

Grech made it clear to the court that he was not on board at any time. The vessel’s captain would speak to him, and he would speak to the AFM, he said.

After taking the bodies on board, the crew were instructed to sail to Tripoli and transfer them onto a Libyan patrol boat. “There were heavy seas, and the [rescued] people on board mutinied, but the Libyans helped quell the uprising,” Grech said.

Lawyer Paul Borg Olivier asked Grech how many times he had carried out this type of operation. “We were asked to do this by the AFM around 3 or 4 times,” he said. “We weren’t paid charter fees. AFM paid for fuel. At first, we would give them our food, but when Captain Morgan [offshore detention centres] started, sea-launches with food would be dispatched to them…”

“The AFM supplied the fuel bowser,” he added.

Salve Regina

Dominic Tanti, owner of the vessel Salve Regina, was also summoned to the stand about his role in the operation. “They commanded me to take food to Libya. Konrad Baldacchino did,” Tanti said, clarifying that he didn’t know Baldacchino. “My friend, who is a captain, had called me to say that Baldacchino needed someone to do this job.” Salve Regina was in Valletta port at the time.

“We loaded up food from Marsa with a crane; it was roughly a one and a half to two-hour job. Konrad Baldacchino provided the food. Around 30 tonnes of it.”

Tanti went to Libya and returned empty on his first voyage there, after handing over his cargo to the Libyan soldiers there. “After two days, they called me up and asked me to do the same. I did the same, and this time, for some reason, they told me to return.”

Therefore he went to Libya twice. The first time he went after the Dar es Salaam, and the second time he didn’t enter Libya, clarified State Advocate Chris Soler.

The second time they gave food to the Tremar – the third vessel allegedly commissioned by the Maltese government to carry out rescues. “They didn’t have food. They stayed outside territorial waters.”

Neville Gafà would coordinate operations from home

Also testifying today was former OPM staffer Neville Gafà. Today self-employed, Gafà said his role in the operation between the 9-10 April was to make contact between Libya and Malta. “After the contacts were established, I was engaged to ensure that the people returned safely. My role was never inside Maltese territorial waters but in Libyan ones, so that jurisdiction applies. I was taking instructions from the OPM (Office of the Prime Minister).”

He denied any role in the engaging of the vessels or having any contact with them. “At OPM, I was in contact with Chief of Staff Clyde Caruana.”

Gafà told the court he would take orders from the AFM to coordinate with the Libyan Coast Guard.” He would coordinate this from home, he said.

There was another mission he was asked to coordinate after his resignation, Gafà said, which he rendered gratis. “There was a separate vessel carrying 30 tonnes of supplies… I was meant to ensure that both the immigrants and supplies reached Tripoli.” He said the mission was a one-off, adding that he didn’t know who was carrying the supplies.