Migrants’ despair and anguish aboard the El Hiblu: Amnesty’s concern over Malta terror charges

Amnesty International concerned about the severity of terrorism charges laid against three teenagers from Ivory Coast and Guinea, suspected of having hijacked a merchant vessel

Migrants disembarking in Malta
Migrants disembarking in Malta

Amnesty International is concerned about the severity of terrorism charges laid against three teenagers from Ivory Coast and Guinea, suspected of having hijacked   a merchant vessel, without consideration of grounds for excluding or mitigating criminal responsibility.

“The crimes they are accused of appear to be disproportionate to the acts imputed to them and do not reflect the risks to their lives they would have faced if returned to Libya,” Amnesty International said, which has also expressed concerned about their treatment and access to a fair trial in Malta.

On 28 March 2019, three teenage asylum-seekers – one from Ivory Coast, aged 15, and two from Guinea, aged 16 and 19 – were arrested over the hijack of the El Hiblu 1, the merchant vessel which had rescued them in the central Mediterranean along with over a hundred other refugees and migrants, to prevent the captain from taking them back to Libya and handing them over to Libyan authorities.

Maltese authorities charged the three youths with a series of grave offences, including under counter-terrorism legislation, some punishable with life imprisonment. They have denied any wrongdoing.

The merchant vessel El Hiblu 1 berthed in Malta after it was stormed by a special unit of the Armed Forces of Malta
The merchant vessel El Hiblu 1 berthed in Malta after it was stormed by a special unit of the Armed Forces of Malta

“Amnesty International is concerned about the severity of the nine charges laid against the three youth, some of which relate to extremely serious offences, including under counter-terrorism legislation, and which can carry life in prison. The charges appear disproportionate to the acts imputed to the defendants, as no evidence has been disclosed so far of any violent or dangerous behaviour against people.

“The use of counter-terrorism legislation is especially problematic, as noted also by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), who has also expressed deep concern at the exaggerated severity of the charges and urged Maltese authorities to reconsider them.

“Amnesty International emphasizes that grounds for excluding criminal responsibility should be borne in mind by the Office of the Attorney General, since the youths appear to have acted reasonably to defend themselves and the other refugees and migrants in a manner proportionate to the degree of danger that the youths and indeed the rest of the refugees and migrants would have faced if returned to Libya.”

El Hiblu saga

In the course of a visit to Malta, in September 2019, Amnesty International visited and interviewed the two youngest youths in the juvenile detention facility of Mtahleb.

Amnesty International discussed the case also with the youths’ lawyers, as well as with representatives of the Office of the Attorney General, the Office of the Prime Minister, and the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM).

The three youths left Garabulli, Libya, on board of a rubber boat in the early morning of 25 March 2019. It is estimated that there were approximately 114 people on board, including 20 women and at least 15 children.

The boat was rescued in the Libyan search and rescue zone by the El Hiblu 1, which was headed to Tripoli.

“There was uncertainty and fear on board the rubber boat. Most, scared of the immediate danger of drowning, decided to climb onboard; however, two men from Guinea, two from Ivory Coast, one from Mali and one from Sudan were too scared at the prospect of being taken back to Libya, and decided to remain in the damaged rubber boat,” Amnesty said.

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

On board the El Hiblu 1, the chief officer told the rescued people that he had received instructions to go to a meeting point where two European boats would be taking on board the refugees and migrants, allowing him to proceed to Tripoli, his intended destination.

While Amnesty has not been able to verify this information, it appears – according to the EunavforMed Sophia aircraft told the El Hiblu 1 to go to Libya: “Sir, we are cooperating with the Libyan Coast Guard. They tell us to say to you that you can move those people to Tripoli.”

The following day, as the refugees and migrants realused they were in front of the Libyan coastline, scenes of despair and panic started, with many shouting that they would rather die at sea than be returned to Libya. The El Hiblu 1 was at this point at six nautical miles from the Libyan coastline, in Libyan territorial waters. The chief officer called the Libyan Coast Guard and gave them the number of the people he had on board. Many of the people on board shouted that they would refuse to be transferred onto Libyan Coast Guard’s boats and would rather jump in the water or be shot on the spot. Many banged their fists against the sides of the ship.

One of the youths interviewed by Amnesty International recounted: “People started crying and shouting because they were afraid to go back, and some had children. They shouted: ‘We don’t want to go to Libya’, ‘We prefer to die’, because if they take you back to Libya they put you in a room, they torture you, you eat only once per day. When they take women to prison, the Libyans choose the ones they like and take them by force. And some people put you in the private prison and call your family and ask to bring money to give freedom.”

Concerned at the reaction of the people on board, who felt betrayed because the chief officer had apparently sworn upon rescuing them that he would never have taken them back to Libya, the chief officer called into the cabin the 15-year-old boy from Ivory Coast, as he knew he could speak English, and asked him: “What can I do to get them to calm down?”.

The child replied: “What can I tell you, the only thing is not to take them back to Libya”.

According to the youth’s account, the chief officer at this point agreed to turn the vessel towards north and said that although he did not have enough fuel to go to Italy, he could take them to Valletta.

When the boy asked what Valletta was, he apparently joked that the boy wanted to go to Europe but did not know that Valletta was a European capital.

According to the boys, the climate in the cabin was relaxed, there was chatting and at times even laughing with the chief officer, and the crewmen were occasionally bringing coffee and peanuts for them. The cabin was kept locked by the chief officer, but the teenagers were allowed to go out when they wanted to, and the chief officer would open the door for them.

According to the information gathered by Amnesty International, at no point during the journey the rescued people engaged in any violent action against the captain, the chief officer or any other members of the crew. The only time when there was shouting and protesting occurred when people realized they were being returned to Libya.

Despite this, the El Hiblu 1 communicated to Maltese authorities that rescued people had taken control of the ship and had forced the crew to proceed towards Malta, despite instructions by the Maltese authorities not to do so.

AFM boarding

The two boys interviewed by Amnesty International reported that the boarding by armed military officers scared them, but that the Maltese soldiers treated them well.

Upon boarding, the Maltese soldiers verified that no crew member or rescued individual had reported any injuries, and that the situation on the ship was quiet and under control, circumstances which were confirmed during the magisterial inquiry. They escorted the ship to Malta, while conducting investigations onboard that led to the identification of five people, including the three youths, as potentially responsible for criminal activities.

As the ship docked in Boiler Wharf, Malta, the authorities arrested the five and took four of them to a police station and one to a hospital under arrest. While two men were released shortly afterwards and were not charged with any crime, the three youth were charged with a number of serious offences, including under counter-terrorism legislation, and transferred to the Corradino Prison, an adult detention facility. As two of them were minors, they were subsequently transferred to a correctional facility for minors.