The case of three youths charged with terrorism exposes all that is wrong with how Europe treats migrants of colour, a conference on migration heard on Saturday.

"The case of the El Hiblu three epitomises all that is wrong about the ways in which black and brown migrants are treated in Europe: an upside-down world in which brave mediators are called pirates, while state authorities engage in acts of piracy at sea," Lorenzo Pezzani, co-director of Border Forensics said.

"However, it is also a powerful symbol of migrant resistance in the face of violent borders. The Free El Hiblu 3 campaign is exemplary in foregrounding their bravery and allowing us to hear their powerful voices," he added.

Pezzani forms part of an international alliance made up of human rights advocates, scholars and religious leaders who are demanding freedom for Kader, Amara and Abdallah.

Members of this international commission joined local NGOs Moviment Graffitti, aditus, Integra, Kopin and JRS for a two-day conference organised by the Free the ElHiblu Three campaign. 

Neil Falzon, director of aditus, told the conference that three years since the three youths were accused of terrorism, they remained in tortuous legal limbo.

"They could live the rest of their lives in prison or they could not. We remain hopeful, in what is a dark and extremely complex case," he said.

The three youths themselves also addressed the conference, recalling the moment they were separated from a group of people who had left Libya in seek of better prospects.

'Constant death threat'

Life in Libya for Amara was characterised by the constant threat of death, turning his dream for a better life into a nightmare. 

He recalled how after managing to flee the north African country because he had no other option, he was rescued when facing death again - this time at sea.

However, those who fished him out of a sinking dinghy were going to return him to Libya, and it was only after volunteering to mediate between the crew and the desperate asylum seekers, that their rescuers took them to Malta, a safe port.

'They separated us after 10 days'

Fellow youth Abdallah noted that once in Malta, the three were separated from the rest and detained in prison.

"Despite this, I remained strong because I was with my friends. But after 10 days they separated us.

"I was left in prison, all alone. It was very difficult to be completely alone. For months I wondered how I would ever get out of there.

"One day I got a letter from the El Hiblu 3 campaign telling me to stay strong, that we were heroes and that they were going to support us. I regained the hope I had lost," he recalled.

'I was 16. I lost hope. I couldn’t sleep'

Kader explained that together with Amara, he had been separated from Abdallah and taken to a prison for minors.

He recalled his initial state of confusion and sense of helplessness:

"We had arrived with at least 100 other people, but they separated the three of us. I couldn't understand why, as we had done nothing wrong. When I arrived in prison, I was treated in a way I never expected to be treated in Europe. I was 16. I lost hope. I couldn’t sleep."

Once out of prison after several months, he was told he could not go to school and had to find a job.

He eventually found a job in construction - a completely new sector for him - but unfortunately fell from a construction site and broke his leg.

Apart from not being paid for his work, he is still recovering from the injuries, making his retaining of a stable job even more challenging, considering he also has to regularly go to hospital and sign the bail book at the police station.

What is the El Hiblu case?

The case goes back to March of 2019, when the merchant vessel ElHiblu rescued 108 people from a rubber boat. Some migrants remained on the dinghy as they feared they would be pushed back to Libya.

They disappeared and are presumed dead.

ElHiblu was instructed to take the people aboard to Libya, an unsafe port. but on March 28, the vessel entered Malta. The Armed Forces of Malta boarded the ship as it approached local waters, following reports that migrants had seized control of the vessel and forced it to head to Europe.

The young men – then aged 15, 16 and 19 – were arrested and charged with crimes amounting to terrorist activity. They have pleaded not guilty.

Amnesty International has meanwhile called for the charges to be dropped and flagged the case in its annual Write for Rights campaign, which urges people to write letters, sign petitions and organise events demanding justice for those who have been imprisoned, attacked or disappeared.

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