Three African youths who are being charged with hijacking a ship in 2019 should be celebrated for preventing the return of 108 people to Libya, not prosecuted by the authorities, an international commission is urging.

The alliance of human rights advocates, scholars and religious leaders is demanding freedom for Kader, Lamin* and Abdallah, lamenting that it took the Maltese prosecution two years to ask the survivors to testify.

In a statement announcing its launch on Thursday, it urged the government and the Office of the Attorney General to drop the case against the youths, known as the ElHiblu3, and to immediately dismiss their trial.

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.

The youngest, Lamin, told Times of Malta he feels like he has been used as a political weapon in an unfair battle, while Kader hopes the new commission will help the three remain morally strong.

Teens acted as translators and mediators

The Freedom Commission, launched on Thursday,  said the three youths had acted as translators and mediators between the captain and survivors, who had protested their return to Libya.

They were imprisoned for seven months before being released on bail in November 2019. Since then, they have to sign every day at the police station and attend monthly hearings during which the prosecution seeks to establish the potential charges to be brought forward.

If found guilty by a jury in Malta, the three could face 30 years in prison.

“While members of the Maltese police and crew members of the merchant vessel were heard promptly after the landing of the El Hiblu 1, it took the Maltese prosecution two years to ask the survivors to testify.

"So far, six survivors have testified, just one of them in their mother tongue. “For them, it is clear that the ElHiblu3 are innocent. More than that, they are described as heroes who prevented over 100 people from being forced back to Libya, a place where human rights are systematically violated, and people on the move are routinely subjected to torture, rape, incarceration, and extortion."

ElHiblu3 should be celebrated

The commission is insisting that returning the 108 survivors to Libya, which is not a safe place for disembarking people rescued at sea, would have been unlawful.

"The criminalisation of the ElHiblu3 in Malta is yet another puzzle piece in a systematic attempt to oppress acts of solidarity and dissent at Europe’s borders.

"While we witness how EU member states and institutions continue to break international law through violent pushbacks as well as forms of non-assistance and abandonment, migrants trying to escape from inhumane conditions become criminalised."

Instead of being prosecuted, the ElHiblu3 should be celebrated for their actions in preventing the return of 108 precarious lives to Libya, it insisted, adding that their imprisonment and prosecution constitutes a deep injustice.

The commission’s members are Cameroonian academic Achille Mbembe, director of Amnesty International Europe Regional Office Nils Mui┼żnieks, Archbishop’s Delegate for Migrants in Malta Anton D’Amato, African Media Association Malta director Régine Psaila, Integra founder and academic Maria Pisani, Forum pour l’autre Mali coordinator Aminata Dramane Traoré, European Democratic Lawyers president Berenice Böhlo, Environmental and sea rescue activist Carola Rackete, Border Forensics codirectors Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, academics Enrica Rigo and Sandro Mezzadra, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights partner lawyer Francesca Cancellaro, ECCHR General Secretary Wolfgang Kaleck, former vice-president of the Advisory Committee to the United Nations Human Rights Council Jean Ziegler, Human Rights Watch Associate Europe and Central Asia director Judith Sunderland, director of European Affairs at Pro Asyl Karl Kopp, Habeshia Agency chair Mussie Zerai, Medico International Foundation spokesperson Ramona Lenz, search-and-rescue swimmer Sarah Mardini and General Secretary of the Churches' Commission for Migrants in Europe Torsten Moritz. 

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