[WATCH] Libyan hijackers remanded in custody, charged with terrorism-related offences

Two pro-Gaddafi loyalists escorted to court under heavy police presence, plead not guilty to hijacking Libyan aircraft and to committing acts of terrorism and terrorist activities

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There were incredible scenes in court today as officers from the anti-terrorism unit, armed with assault rifles and wearing bullet proof vests and military-style gear, escorted two Libyan men charged with hijacking an aircraft and committing acts of terrorism.

The two Libyan hijackers were escorted under heavy police presence wearing handcuffs and wearing bulletproof vests, as onlookers who had gathered in Valletta for Christmas celebrations looked in awe and disbelief as they witnessed what was perhaps the heaviest security detail to ever escort an accused.

The accused arrived in a convoy of police cars with blacked-out windows and individually escorted by a team of six anti-terrorism police officers through the court’s main entrance in Republic Street.

In court, the accused, named as Moussa Shah Soko, 27, and Ali Ahmed Saleh, 28, both of Sebha, Tripoli, appeared restrained and nervous as the charges were read out. Sitting in the dock before Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera and flanked by police officers, the accused listened attentively as they were charged with committing nine criminal offences, including hijacking the Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A320 on Friday, and with committing acts of terrorism and terrorist activities.

Read more: Pro-Gaddafi aeroplane hijackers arrested, all 118 passengers and crew unharmed, weapons revealed to be replicas

The hijackers being arraigned in court • All photos: Chris Mangion
The hijackers being arraigned in court • All photos: Chris Mangion

The accused, reportedly Muammar Gaddafi loyalists, were also charged with being in possession of imitation weapons - namely two guns and an explosive device – using violence against a person on board the flight, holding people against their will, threatening the passengers, endangering the safety of the aircraft, making threats of violence, and attempting to cause financial or economic instability for a government or international institution.

The offences are punishable by a maximum term of life imprisonment.

Saleh, who described his occupation as “doing everything”, and Soko, who said he was a former student, pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Legal aid lawyers Mark Mifsud Bonnici and Patrick Valentino – appearing for Soko and Saleh respectively – told the Court that no request for bail would be made, as the accused had no fixed address in Malta.  

Consequently, the accused will be detained at Corradino Correctional Facility.

As per the laws of procedure, the compilation of evidence against the accused will begin in the coming days.

Armed with what turned out to be replica weapons, on Friday the accused forced an internal flight from Sebha to Tripoli to fly to Malta by threatening they would blow up the aircraft with a grenade. Their motive is still not yet known, with investigators reportedly in contact with international authorities to uncover any clues.

The passengers – 82 males, 28 females, and one infant – as well as seven crew members on board the aircraft escaped unharmed, and following their release, were immediately questioned by police and investigators. As victims, they released their statements to the police and testified during the magisterial inquiry. They will, however, not testify at this stage since they have all left Malta to Tripoli on Saturday morning.

At one point, Soko requested the return of his mobile phones – a request met by a wry smile from the prosecution and presiding Magistrate, Consuelo Scerri Herrera. Together with a host of other pieces of documentary evidence, the accused’s mobile phones are currently being examined by the police.

In its submissions, the defence counsel for the Libyan men asked the court to allow the accused to communicate with their family and be allowed to pray. Upholding the request, Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera appealed to the Director of Prisons to allow the accused to pray like all people of all religions, and to be able to communicate with their family, as per usual procedures.

The accused’s passports were also exhibited in court.

Police inspectors Omar Zammit and George Cremona prosecuted. Legal aid lawyer Mark Mifsud Cutajar appeared for Soko, while Dr Patrick Valentino represented Saleh.

Meanwhile, informed sources who spoke to MaltaToday said investigators are also scouring the hijacked plan for clues. During their interrogation, the accused reportedly filed to cooperate with the police, and refused to reply to any questions.

Home affairs minister Carmelo Abela yesterday said no extradition requests were made by the Libyan authorities. If an extradition request were to be made, the accused would, subject to the consent of the Maltese courts, be extradited to Libya once the criminal proceedings are concluded and following completion of their punishment.  

The two hijackers reportedly demanded political asylum in Malta; but at a press conference on Friday, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat denied this and said that “no requests were made.” The hijackers had reportedly threatened to blow up the plane unless their demands were met.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said his government refused to entertain any of the hijackers’ demands before all passengers and crew members were released. Their demands are still not yet known.

The four-hour standoff ended when the two men, who reportedly claimed they wanted to launch a new political party, came out of the Afriqiyah Airways plane with a crew member who was their final hostage. After releasing the passengers, one of the hijackers briefly stood outside the plane with a green flag of Gaddafi’s Libya.

The hijackers reportedly form part of a pro-Gaddafi group called al-Fateh al-Gadida, whose name is drawn from the 1969 revolution that saw the late colonel ascend to power in Libya.

The two hijackers are from Sabha, the capital of the southern region of Fezzan, a hotbed of support for the old regime.

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