A court-appointed expert said on Tuesday that although the El Hiblu was equipped with six cameras, they had never been activated to record.

This was disclosed by IT expert lawyer Martin Bajada who was appointed in the magisterial inquiry that kicked off when the merchant vessel, which had been instructed to take some 100 rescued migrants to Libya, later entered Malta on March 28, 2019

The Armed Forces of Malta boarded the ship as it approached Maltese waters, following reports that the migrants had seized control of the vessel and forced the captain to head back to Europe.

Three English-speaking teenagers among the rescuers - Abdallah, Amara and Kader -  then aged 15, 16 and 19, who allegedly stepped in as mediators to calm down panicked fellow migrants who feared being taken back to Libya, are currently facing the prospect of a 30-year jail term for terrorism and hijacking.

When testifying in the ongoing compilation of evidence on Tuesday, Bajada said that on March 28, 2019 he had carried out a site inspection on board the El Hiblu which was berthed at Boiler Wharf.

He seized a digital video recorder and two nautical charts, obtaining VTR recordings and other data from the Armed Forces the following day.

Although the vessel was equipped with six cameras, the DVR was not recording, said the expert.

Asked by presiding magistrate Nadine Lia the reason for this, Bajada explained that the cameras had never been activated to record.

The system was checked but no recording existed on the hard drive, providing a “view only” system showing what happened at a particular point in time.

I’d rather die in the water

Most of Tuesday’s hearing was allocated to the testimony of a French-speaking asylum seeker, one of the 108 migrants rescued by the El Hiblu, who, though unable to identify one of the accused in court, claimed that the other two were persons whom he wished “to thank a lot”.

Referring to the trio seated in the dock, the witness said that the English-speaking youths had calmed down their fellow migrants on board the ship as panic broke out when they realised that the vessel had changed direction and that the land sighted at a distance was actually the Libyan coast.

After setting out on their sea crossing in the early hours of the morning, the 100 or so migrants huddled on board the rubber dinghy spotted a helicopter flying overhead at around 1pm.

Later that afternoon they were approached by a “big boat”.

The English speaking migrants communicated with the captain who called the helicopter to “come save us”, the witness said.

Although the majority of the group boarded the merchant ship some, less trusting, remained behind.

When the migrants asked for food and water, they were first told that there were none on board but were told that there was another boat nearby equipped with provisions. 

It was already dark and so, believing that they were being taken to the other boat for food and water, the migrants slept.

Yet calm soon turned to panic when some members among the group realised that the land sighted “far away” was Libya.

“I don’t want to go back to Libya. I’d rather die in the water,” shouted the man. Women and children shouted and cried, as some even threatened to jump overboard. 

That was when the captain emerged from his cabin and asked what was going on. 

Panic had gripped majority on board

The three accused explained in English that their fellow migrants did not want to go back to Libya.

He told them to follow him into his cabin and when they returned they reassured the others that they were being taken to Europe, testified the witness. 

“We stayed where we were without any problem until we reached Malta.”

Asked what had made the captain change his mind when he headed back to Libya, the witness replied, “About that I can say nothing.”

Under cross-examination by the defence, the witness confirmed that panic had gripped the majority of those on board.

As for the accused, he said that they had not forced themselves into the cabin but had been called in by the captain himself.

And when they did go, not once but twice, they had no objects in their hands.

“Did the captain actually ask for their help,” asked lawyer Cedric Mifsud.

“Yes, you are correct.”

“When the soldiers came on board was the situation calm?” went on the lawyer.

“We were sleeping,” replied the witness, further confirming that the three accused had acted as mediators throughout the voyage. 

As his testimony ended, the prosecution informed the court that some nine other migrants from the El Hiblu saga had still not been located to be served with notice to testify, even though police had obtained their latest addresses from the relative government departments.

The case continues.

Inspectors Omar Zammit and Geoffrey Cutajar prosecuted. Lawyers Cedric Mifsud and Neil Falzon were defence counsel.

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