The latest hearing in a three-year inquiry takes place this week for three African migrants, arrested as teenagers in Malta in 2019. Amnesty International and other human rights activists have been campaigning for the charges against the teens to be dropped. InfoMigrants spoke to Amnesty in Malta for this week's hearing.
"We are in this for the long haul," says Elisa De Pieri, Regional Researcher at Amnesty International, speaking to InfoMigrants from Malta.
Amnesty and other human rights activists and NGOS have been campaigning for three long years to get the Maltese authorities to drop an inquiry and the long list of charges against three African teenagers from Ivory Coast and Guinea, who have become known as the El Hiblu 3.
In March 2019, the three, along with 108 other migrants, boarded a small boat in Libya with the hope of reaching Europe. Still in what has been designated with the cooperation of Italy and the European authorities as the Libyan Search and Rescue Region (SAR), the boat got into difficulty and a nearby cargo vessel, El Hiblu was directed towards the boat.
The crew on the El Hiblu picked up the migrants and brought them on board. What happened next has been the subject of conflicting reports. According to migrants on board who spoke to campaigners subsequently, the migrants were told they were being taken to Malta. But after a night at sea, they realized they were infact nearing the Libyan coast.
Also read: October 2021 campaign update
Some of the migrants, speaking in a video on the El Hiblu 3 campaign page, say that at this point they decided among themselves that they would refuse to disembark in Libya. Most of those on board had stories of torture and abuse in Libyan prisons and didn’t want to be returned there.
International organizations like the UN refugee agency UNHCR and Amnesty agree that Libya is not a place of safety and migrants rescued at sea should not be returned there. However, under the current agreements, those rescued in the Libyan SAR can, and often are, returned to Libya as this region is under jurisdiction of the Libyan authorities and coast guard.
The three men in question, who were just 15, 16 and 19 at the time, could speak some English and so were able to communicate between the mainly French speaking migrants and the ship's crew. Amnesty confirms that "after people on board the El Hiblu realized that the captain was attempting to illegally push them back to Libya, they began to panic."
Translators or terrorists?
In a press release, Amnesty says that the chief officer of the El Hiblu "relied on the three youths to translate information to the other survivors and maintain calm." After some time, the El Hiblu turned around and brought the migrants to Malta.
One survivor, speaking in a video on the El Hiblu campaign page says that the captain turned off the engines and waited. Then Maltese armed guards boarded the boat and said that the youths had taken control of the ship and arrested them on offenses of hijacking, terrorism and taking the ship by force.
Another survivor speaking on the same video asks rhetorically how they could have taken the ship by force when they were "unarmed." He also says that most of the group of migrants didn’t know each other, "we are not from the same village, the same city, the same land. The only thing we have in common is black skin," he says.
Inquiry progresses slowly
The authorities arrested the three youths on March 28, 2019 and an investigation began. After months of hearings, and bail requests, bail was eventually granted on November 15, 2019. But the hearings continued, every month to six weeks, explains De Pieri.
According to De Pieri, in this inquiry, it has been up to the police to gather the evidence and the witnesses for the various hearings. The defense lawyers are not able to call witnesses themselves and often do not know ahead of time who will be heard at any given hearing.
In November, 2021, the Maltese authorities admitted that several of the witnesses from whom the inquiry wanted to hear could not be found. Many of those on board with the three teenagers, explains De Pieri, have now left Malta.
The three on trial though are living under strict bail conditions and forced to stay on Malta, where they all work, says De Pieri who has met them all. One of the conditions of bail requires the three men to sign in by a certain time each evening at a police station. "This is definitely a cause of stress for them," says De Pieri, "because they often have to run straight from work, they get worried if the bus is delayed, this is definitely a cause of stress for them."
'They are very frustrated'
The youngest of the group just turned 18 last year. "They are very frustrated," says De Pieri. "Very often in the hearings nothing much happens, and this is a concern for their lawyers as well. The lack of action from the police side and the prosecutor’s side, the lack of witnesses being called, many of them on the El Hiblu have now moved on and are very difficult to trace. Nobody can quite see where this process is going at this point."
De Pieri also doesn’t know what is planned for the hearing on February 3. "Essentially nobody knows until you turn up. We just don’t know."
The three young men are also very worried about their future. The list of charges against them are "very serious," says De Pieri. "They can’t really move on, they feel stuck, some of them are getting depressed, they can’t plan until this is over."
'Drop the charges'
The prosecutors still haven't decided on which charges the three may be indicted. "They range from engaging in acts of terrorism, violence against people, detaining and threatening other people. It would be up to the prosecutor if they decide to indict, to choose on what they would indict them on."
Amnesty is hoping that the prosecutors will eventually decide to drop all the charges and close the case. They have more than 200,000 signatures in a petition to this end. People have written thousands of supportive letters to the three young men too.
But there has been no word from the Maltese authorities about where the inquiry might be going. However, De Pieri says that although it has no direct bearing on the Maltese case, Amnesty has been encouraged by the decision from Italy’s highest court at the end of December 2021 in a similar case, where migrants were accused of hijacking the ship which rescued them.
Italy: Vos Thalassa case
The so called Vos Thalassa case began in Italy in 2018. In this, two men who are now living in Palermo, Sicily -- one from Ghana and the other from Sudan -- were accused of hijacking a ship. "We didn't do anything bad to anyone, all we said was we didn’t want to be returned to Libya," the two men explained to a reporter at La Repubblica Palermo in December.
Just like in the El Hiblu case, the 67 migrants rescued by the Vos Thalassa (a private merchant ship) which was supplying oil platforms off the coast of Libya, rebelled when they found they were being taken towards Libya to be handed over to the Libyan coast guard.
La Repubblica reports that in the trial, the migrants had mimed a throat being cut, according to them to say that they were scared that is what would happen to them if handed over to the Libyans. The crew of the Vos Thalassa though believed they were being threatened with death and shut themselves in the ship.
Highest court acquittal
The Italian coast guard had to come and pick up the migrants and eventually they were able to disembark in Trapani. Although they were acquited in the first trial, they were then found guilty on appeal, in Italy’s complicated multiple-stage trial system. However, the fact that the highest court has now overturned the guilty verdict and re-acquitted them gives hope to Amnesty and De Pieri.
It has been five years since Italy and the EU signed the latest round of agreements with Libya which has resulted in 82,000 migrants being returned to Libya, states Amnesty. De Pieri is hopeful that the Italian result will provide a signal to the Maltese justice system too. And make the EU authorities as a whole realize that migrants cannot and should never have been returned to Libya.
'Let them continue with their lives'
"These young men were only boys when they tried to protect themselves and their fellow asylum-seekers from being returned to almost certain torture, detention, rape and exploitation in Libya. For three long years their lives have been on hold – it is now high time to drop the charges agains them and let them continue with their lives," says De Pieri.
It would have been "unlawful" to return them to Libya, underlines De Pieri. "Libya is not safe for refugees and migrants. We know that they are subjected to serious human rights abuses there, including mass arrests in the last few months."
Amnesty is advocating for the memorandum of understanding between the EU and Libya to be stopped. "The situation [in Libya] remains absolutely horrendous for refugees and migrants there," says De Pieri. "There is no lack of evidence [supporting that] but it is the political will we continue to fight against."