United Nations tells Malta to reconsider ‘exaggerated’ terrorism charges against El Hiblu teens

UN High Commission for Human Rights says minors being held in high-security division after interrogation without being appointed legal guardians 

Armed Forces of Malta personnel aboard the El Hiblu, 28 March 2019
Armed Forces of Malta personnel aboard the El Hiblu, 28 March 2019

The Office of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Malta to reconsider the terrorism charges filed against three teenage boat migrants, who were arrested on 28 March following the docking of the El Hiblu I vessel in the country. 

The UNHCHR’s spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said the high commissinoer had expressed concern at how three teenagers who stand accused of leading an alleged hijack at sea are being handled. 

The charges relate to an incident where some 100 migrants attempting to flee Libya were rescued in international waters by a commercial vessel that was en route to Libya. The vessel reportedly rescued the migrants and initially informed them that they would be taken to Europe but then turned around to head back to Libya. The migrants protested in desperation and the ship was steered again toward Malta. 

The accused, aged 15, 16 and 19, have been charged under Maltese laws for allegedly hijacking the ship and forcing it to go to Malta. Some of the charges are punishable by life imprisonment. We understand that the three are due to appear in court on 20 May. 

“While the circumstances around the captain’s decision to finally steer the ship to Malta are disputed, we are deeply concerned by the severity of the charges,” Shamdasani said. 

“In spite of the fact that two of them are minors, all three of the accused were held in the high-security division of an adult prison after they were reportedly interrogated by the authorities without being appointed legal guardians or placed in the care of independent child protection officials, responsible for ensuring their best interests.” 

The UNHCHR has made its concerns clear to the Maltese authorities about the treatment of the three young migrants and what it believes are exaggerated charges against them. 

“Once again, we urge the European Union and its Member States to implement a common, human rights-based response to maritime migration from Libya. States need to ensure sufficient search and rescue resources in the Mediterranean Sea, and to guarantee that non-governmental search and rescue organisations can perform their life-saving activities without being criminalised. States must ensure that all rescued migrants can disembark swiftly in a port of safety where their rights are respected and make it clear that no returns should take place directly or indirectly to Libya,” Shamdasani said. 

“Libya, very clearly, is not a safe port. A State’s forcible return of migrants who have been rescued at sea to Libya violates the core legal principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returns where there are substantial grounds for believing that a person would be at risk of serious human rights violations or other irreparable harm.” 

UN human rights reports have detailed systematic human rights violations against migrants in Libya, including unlawful killings, arbitrary detention, torture and inhuman detention conditions, alarming rates of malnutrition, sexual and gender-based violence including gang rape, slavery, forced labour and extortion. 

A December 2018 report documented 1,300 migrants’ accounts of the “unimaginable horrors” they suffered. Those who were intercepted while attempting to flee by sea were then delivered straight back into the pattern of violations and abuses they had escaped, including indefinite detention, trafficking, starvation, severe beatings, and squalid conditions where many develop serious medical issues. 

“We understand that many of the migrants who arrived in Malta on the El Hiblu I were dehydrated and exhibited clear signs of torture and ill-treatment, including several children. It is unclear whether they remain in the Initial Reception Centre, where most of them were being held initially. We urge the Maltese authorities to ensure the proper care and protection of these individuals, including by releasing them to non-custodial Open Centres where their vulnerabilities and protection needs can be best assessed,” Shamdasani said. 

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