Former OPM official Neville Gafá has claimed that he was “operating under Libyan jurisdiction” when he coordinated a pushback of migrants at Malta’s request on Easter Sunday last year.
Gafá, who is currently self-employed since resigning his public post last year, was testifying on Wednesday in constitutional proceedings filed by lawyer Paul Borg Olivier on behalf of 52 asylum seekers.
The asylum seekers are suing the Maltese state, claiming their rights were breached when they were pushed back to Libya in April 2020 by a private, Libyan-registered fishing vessel.
NGO AlarmPhone had alerted Maltese authorities to the fate of a dinghy of migrants heading to the Maltese search and rescue zone.
Those migrants were picked up by the private vessel, which was engaged by Maltese authorities, and returned to Libya where they were placed in a detention centre. A separate ship carried food and water to Libya.
Gafá explained under oath how that Easter Sunday, a call from the prime minister’s office had reached him, requesting his assistance in setting up contact with the home affairs minister in Libya.
It was rather a difficult time, given the heavy attack on Tripoli at the time, he recalled.
He said he had managed to secure contact and later agreed to help coordinate the operation.
“My role was to safeguard Libyan waters. I did not operate under Maltese jurisdiction,” Gafá said while confirming, under questioning by the applicants’ lawyer, that he took instructions from OPM in Malta.
He played no involvement in engaging the vessels nor had any contact with the captains concerned, he said.
Gafá said his role was to relay coordinates to the coastguard and home affairs minister in Libya, explaining that he performed that role from his Mellieħa home, “and occasionally from my car too.”
For that purpose he kept “continuous direct contact” with former OPM chief of staff, now Finance Minister Clyde Caruana, as well as with the AFM Commander, saying they had saved “hundreds if not thousands of migrants,” by working together over the years.
As for payment for his efforts, he said that he had done it gratis.
“Were you engaged by government?”asked Borg Olivier.
“Irrespective of who was in government, if the Maltese government asks me to do so, I would,” came the reply.
As for the vessels ferrying foodstuffs to Libya, Gafà said that he knew about a trip involving some 30 tonnes of cargo, but since that did not fall within his role, he did not know who was involved and had not asked.
“It was the Salve Regina. I forgot the name of the other boat,” he said.
“Dar Al Salam?”prompted Borg Olivier.
“Yes,” Gafà recalled.
Boat owner recalls dead bodies
The owner of that fishing vessel, Carmelo Grech, was the next to testify during Wednesday’s sitting, describing the rescue operation in force 7 to 8 winds and strong water currents that upped the difficulty.
His boat was berthed at Bridge Wharf when AFM called upon him and his crew to carry out the rescue of the boatload of migrants.
Weather conditions made it difficult to track the dinghy, but eventually it was located in an area that was closer to Lampedusa, said Grech, recalling how he had received the coordinates from the AFM and relayed them to his captain out at sea.
Reporting back that five of the migrants were dead, he was told by the AFM to first rescue the survivors and then take the five corpses on board, too.
Given the risk of infection, that last order did not go down well with Grech, yet he complied, relaying the message to his captain.
The surviving migrants were told to lend a hand in hoisting the dead bodies onto the fishing vessel.
“We obeyed the AFM’s orders,” Grech said, recalling further how the Dar Al Salam had then headed towards Tripoli, facing rebellion from the migrants on board.
A Libyan patrol boat was called for assistance and finally, the vessel was escorted to port.
Asked about other similar rescue operations, Grech said that they were engaged “some three or four times by the AFM” who covered expenses related to crew and fuel.
But there was no other payment, Grech said.
At first his company provided food against subsequent compensation, but later that changed when migrants were held aboard Captain Morgan vessels.
Transporting food to Libya
Sea captain and owner of the Salvae Regina, Dominic Tanti, testified about two trips undertaken to transport 30 tonnes of food and water to Libya.
A friend and fellow captain by the name of “Silvio” had called to ask if he was interested in doing the job contracted by Conrad Baldacchino.
“Rest assured he will pay,” his friend had said.
Since COVID-19 had negatively impacted his job, Tanti had welcomed the offer because he had expenses to cover and so proceeded to load his vessel with the 30-tonne cargo at the Marsa menqa.
On that first trip, paid for by Baldacchino, the Salvae Regina had sailed out and was told to stand by overnight for coordinates outside Maltese territorial waters.
The following morning, they received instructions to proceed to Tripoli, “speaking briefly” to another vessel, the TreMar, along the way.
He sailed into port and delivered the cargo to the Libyan soldiers, Tanti said.
A second trip with an equal load of foodstuffs had, however, not made it to Libya’s port since Tanti’s vessel was instructed to turn back to Malta.
He had handed over some of the provisions to another vessel, the Tre Mar, on the way, Tanti explained.
The court is currently hearing evidence related to a preliminary plea raised by the respondents who are contesting the jurisdiction of the Maltese courts.
The case continues next month.
State Advocate Chris Soler represented the respondents, except for the AFM who is represented by lawyer Susanne Agius.