Abdalla, Amara and Kader: how three teenagers were accused of terrorism

Abdalla, Amara and Kader are still facing terrorism charges which carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment: their crime – mediating between an angry crowd of asylum seekers and a ship captain who was steering them back to Libya

The three teenagers Abdalla, Amara and Kader arrived in Malta in March 2019 aboard the merchant vessel El Hiblu 1, which had rescued them from a sinking rubber boat two days earlier. Despite telling the shipwrecked survivors that they would be brought to Europe, the captain of the El Hiblu was steering south towards Libyan shores. 

In his account of the events of those days in “Free the El Hiblu 3” , Abdalla Bari recalls the disappointment felt by the rescued immigrants when they realised they were being sent back to Libya.

“The ship stopped, people were shouting, others were trying to jump into the water, some were falling, and some women on the other side of the boat were fainting. This spectacle took place with the captain and his crew closed in the cabin, only hours after he had sworn on the Quran not to bring us back to Libya.”

Although upset at the captain’s deceit, Abdalla recalls overcoming his anger to calm the others, and to join those who were trying to restore calm on the boat. “As the situation calmed down, the captain came out of his cabin to talk to the person who understood and spoke English while we were in front of the crowd explaining and helping.”

The El Hiblu
The El Hiblu

But as soon as the ship arrived in Malta, the three ‘mediators’, then 15, 16 and 19 years old, were arrested, thrown in jail and accused of terrorism, of hijacking the ship and of wilful destruction of property. “We were just trying to calm people down. Because of that we spent seven months and twenty days in prison and we are still in legal proceedings,” says Abdul Kader.

Last week the three teenagers shared their plight with Pope Francis, handing him a copy of a book which documents another harrowing chapter in the criminalisation of the powerless.

‘I am not a terrorist’

Being labelled a terrorist – a term usually reserved to cold-blooded murderers – is something which Amara Kromah finds hard to stomach.

“My whole life has been defined by my quest to live a better and decent life away from home, and despite all the challenges and traumatising experiences I have had during the course of this journey, I have always remained peaceful and law-abiding. I am neither a terrorist nor do I encourage any act of terrorism in any given circumstance,” writes Amara Kromah, one of the three young people facing terrorism charges.

 Amara Kromah
Amara Kromah

Jelka Kretzschmar from Sea Watch, the refugee rescue charity, says the three boys were immediately thrown into a high security wing in Malta’s prison, and only moved to regular facilities for juvenile offenders and adults two weeks later. It was only eight months later that the three young men were finally released on bail. “They were the same three young men who acted as translators and mediators, who tried to calm people on board and converse with the crew in order not to be forced back into the hell of Libyan detention camps: Abdalla, Amara and Kader.”

Today, the three young men have been released for over two and a half years, but they are awaiting a trial that could lead to their imprisonment for life. “They are allowed to work and pay taxes, but they are not allowed to go for a swim on Malta’s beaches as their bail conditions dictate that they must stay 50 metres away from the coastline. If they miss signing in with the police one day, they risk going back to jail,” says Kretzschma. 

From Libyan hellhole to Maltese nightmare

All three young people share gruesome stories about their time in Libya, the country to which they did not want to return.

Amara Kromah recalls fearing being kidnapped in Libya. “I would work for the whole day, and instead of getting paid after a long day of work, they would point guns at us and chase us away. My life became characterised by fear and hopelessness in Libya, as lawlessness, kidnapping and rape became normal. Armed Libyan civilians would commit gruesome crimes like rape, shooting and even stabbing black African immigrants, like me, without being questioned by anyone.” 

“Once we were in Libya, we were always scared of being kidnapped and enslaved for work. Leaving the house means risking your life if you’re a black person,” recalls Abdalla Bari, now 22, married and a father of two daughters.

Abdul Kader recalled that as soon as arriving in the first village in Libya he got arrested and locked up in a private prison. “From this prison, they decide how much you have to pay in order to be released. I didn’t have any money so my friend and his older brother left me there as they only paid for themselves. Those who didn’t pay, were beaten so that they would call their parents to pay.” Kader spent about nine months in prisons, working in the fields without being paid before escaping to Tripoli from where he was picked up from a roundabout and taken to nearby village where he found himself working for free again.

“After finishing the work, he refused to pay us and to take us back to where he had picked us up in the morning. He said that from now on we would always work for him. So we worked for him, we were always watched. Some days, he gave us food, some days he didn’t.” 

Even in Malta, their life has been marred not just by a court case which has dragged on for the past three years but also by the harsh realities of earning a living. In June 2020, Abdul Kader was injured while working with a construction company.

“I fell off the third floor. Luckily, I only broke my leg. I feel lucky and I thank God that I am still alive. For months I was walking on crutches and couldn’t work. I am still in pain every day. I’ve got some long metal plates in my hips and leg and am waiting for another operation for them to be taken out. That scares me, because I’m afraid I will again miss work and lose my job.”

Criminalising the powerless

The only silver lining for the three young men was the solidarity they found. Nils Muižnieks, an Amnesty International director, met Amara and Kader for the first time in September 2019, while they were imprisoned in Malta’s juvenile detention facility, in Imtaħleb.

“They were all teenagers then, thousands of miles from home, struggling to understand their predicament and still coming to terms with more trauma than many of us face in a lifetime: the hardship and violence of Libya, after a gruelling desert crossing; a terrifying sea journey in an overcrowded, rickety rubber boat which soon started to deflate; the shock of discovering that after surviving a shipwreck they were about to be unlawfully returned to Libya, the very place they had risked their life to leave; and once finally in Malta, an arrest followed by months of detention.”

Migration expert and academic Dr Maria Pisani describes the accusations brought against the three young men as an act of cruelty.

“The El Hiblu 3, as they came to be known, might as well still be adrift in the Mediterranean, or lying in their prison cell, for they remain shackled for a crime that they did not commit. The waiting is devastating, destructive and frightening”.

Yet this is not just a personal story of three young men but also another chapter in the “lawfare” (legal warfare) being waged by European authorities keen on pushing them back to Libya. 

“As they translated for the captain and the other passengers, the three teenagers entered a broader political context – a context marked by tension, political bluster and abuse of power, violence, human rights violations and deaths, with little end in sight,” Pisani says.

All this is happening in a context where “punishing refugees has become normalised, a collateral damage of border politics.” 

Yet the nightmare faced by the three young people can be easily stopped with one simple act by the Attorney General; that of dropping the charges.

“Deep down, most of us are able to recognise an act of cruelty, and we are equally aware of the fear that it generates. The accusations brought against Abdalla, Amara and Kader, and the ongoing court procedures, are harmful and cruel. This injustice cannot continue to be ignored, justified or dismissed. We call upon the Attorney General to drop all charges with immediate effect, and to close the case before it goes to trial. It is the just thing to do,” Pisani says.

Despite their ordeal, Amara, encouraged by the “friendliness and support of the ordinary Maltese people”, remains hopeful.

“On days that I have to appear in court, I wake from my bed believing that I am going to be acquitted. I know and believe that truth will always prevail.”