The crew of an Armed Forces of Malta patrol boat accused of sabotaging a stranded migrant vessel have denied any wrongdoing, according to their lawyer.

Hermann Mula, who is representing the AFM crew on board the patrol boat P52, told Times of Malta he had spoken to his clients and was “morally convinced” that they had done nothing wrong. 

“There is not much I can say at this early stage as there is a magisterial inquiry under way. However, I can say that they [the crew] will be denying any wrongdoing and have always acted professionally,” he said.  

Mula is representing the crew after they collectively approached the General Workers’ Union this week.  

An NGO that monitors the presence of migrant boats in the Mediterranean, Alarm Phone, last week claimed that a boat of migrants had been attacked at sea by Maltese personnel.

“The 70 people in distress near Malta called us moments ago and said: ‘We have an emergency here. Malta military came and cut the cable of our motor. Water is in the boat. Malta military said: ‘I leave you to die in the water. Nobody will come to Malta’,” the NGO tweeted.

More than a week since the claim, the government and AFM are yet to deny that the patrol boat crew were involved in any foul play. 

The mild weather presented an opportunity for migrants gathered at smugglers’ departure points along the North African coast to make a bid to reach Europe by sea, as Malta and other EU states grapple with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Malta reacted by shutting its ports to migrant disembarkation and, as a result, some five migrant boats were left stranded in the sea between Libya and Malta this month. 

Two of these boats made their way to Italy and one more was intercepted by a Spanish humanitarian NGO. The fourth remaining boat, carrying more than 50 people, was returned to Libya with five dead bodies aboard and another seven people missing, after it spent days adrift. 

We love our country and believe in justice

Amid widespread alarm by humanitarian organisations, civil society NGO Repubblika have taken a series of legal steps on the matter to seek justice. During a news conference on Saturday, the NGO said its members were being portrayed as “traitors” for wanting to establish who was responsible for the death of the stranded migrants. 

Giving “an account of the facts”, Repubblika president Vicki Ann Cremona said the government had been twisting facts and propelling a narrative that those seeking justice were working “with the enemy”.  

“The accusation being made against us is that we are traitors and working for the ‘enemy’. Our lawyers are being verbally attacked simply for assisting us. We love our country and believe in justice,” she said.

On Friday, Prime Minister Robert Abela gave a live address to the nation at 8pm to say the police had launched an investigation into himself, AFM brigadier Jeffrey Curmi and crew members of patrol boat P52. 

That followed two reports filed by Repubblika, in which they asked the police to investigate whether the army and prime minister had caused the death of migrants at sea by failing to rescue them.

A second complaint by the NGO concerns the alleged intentional AFM sabotage of a rubber boat carrying asylum seekers.

The reports were filed on the NGO’s behalf by its four lawyers, among them Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi. The other lawyers were Andrew Borg Cardona, Joe Ellis and Paul Borg Olivier. 

Abela lashed out at the criminal complaints, saying there were some who want him, the AFM brigadier and the boat crew to spend their lives behind bars.

But Cremona on Saturday insisted that the NGO’s only interest was to ensure that responsibility was shouldered for the death of migrants at sea.  

The rule of law, she said, should be equal for all.  

Asked whether they felt those concerned should step down, as is normal practice when a criminal investigation is launched, Repubblika member Manuel Delia told Times of Malta that that is for the involved parties to consider. The civil society group’s main interest, he said, was justice.  

Meanwhile, Cremona said that despite the gravity of the accusations being levelled against the government and the AFM, there had been no official denial that a migrant boat had had its engine cable cut by an AFM patrol or that migrants had been left to die in Maltese waters. 

Malta has followed in Italy’s footsteps in declaring its ports ‘unsafe’ for migrant disembarkation, citing the COVID-19 outbreak as its primary concern.  

Cremona, however, charged that this was not a justified reason to leave people stranded at sea, especially when Malta had legal and humanitarian obligations to intervene.

Repubblika had also filed an urgent request at the European Court of Human Rights seeking an interim measure to ensure Malta and Italy do not allow asylum seekers fleeing Libya to remain abandoned. The request was turned down.

Cremona said the prime minister had presented the refusal of this request as a victory but it was anything but the case.

In July 2013, the European Court had stopped Malta from pushing migrants back to Libya.

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