The ship at the centre of a case involving three young men facing highly-contested terrorism charges is at the centre of a massive cocaine bust and ‘flag-hopping’ in developments that the defence lawyer said should completely exo­nerate his clients.

The cargo ship involved in the El Hiblu Three case in 2019 was caught smuggling almost €76 million worth of cocaine two years later while operating under a different name, it has recently emerged.

Meanwhile, the owner of the vessel who later testified against the three youths describes himself on Facebook as a ‘Libyan pirate’.

According to Aditus director and human rights lawyer, Neil Falzon the drug-trafficking activities of the vessel and other suspicious behaviour, even before the alleged 2019 terrorism case, call into question the reliability of the testimonies given by the owner and other members of the El Hiblu 1 crew.

In 2019, Amara, Kader and Abdalla were among 108 migrants who boarded a nine-metre dinghy from Libya to cross the Mediterranean. As the rubber boat started to deflate and sink, a merchant vessel, El Hiblu 1, rescued them.

Shortly after the rescue, the vessel was instructed to take the migrants back to Libya. But the migrants on board ordered the crew to sail the ship to Malta instead. The three youths – then aged 15, 16 and 19 – were arrested and subsequently charged, with prosecutors claiming they were the ringleaders when the ship was taken over.

The three say they only acted as mediators and translators for the rest of the ship’s passengers. International pressure has since been mounting on the attorney general to drop the charges.

The question is now: why is Malta pursuing this case against these three young men?- Aditus director and human rights lawyer Neil Falzon

Falzon said the latest developments change everything.

“It confirms our suspicions that the El Hiblu operators are a bunch of ruthless criminals. It confirms our fears that Malta’s case against our clients is entirely based on statements made by a gang of pirates. Ultimately, it confirms our clients’ story that they were the victims of a twisted scheme.

“The question is now: why is Malta pursuing this case against these three young men?”

According to a fellow defence lawyer specialising in maritime law who is also representing the three youths, Cedric Mifsud, the ship’s owner would have been aware of where the vessel is and what it is doing.

“Usually, it’s the owner that directs the crew,” he said, adding that it was not unusual in merchant shipping for the captain and crew of a boat to change periodically.

The ship, renamed the Nehir, was found to be carrying over 1.8 tonnes of cocaine – with an approximate street value of €76 million – after being intercepted by the Spanish police at the entrance to the Bay of Biscay in February 2021.

Spanish authorities had been alerted to a ship matching the Nehir’s description by Colombian colleagues who suspected it could be carrying up to three tonnes of the illicit substance.

After disabling its tracking device the previous month in the Northwest African port of Nouadhibou, the site of various drugs seizures over the years, the vessel is thought to have proceeded to South America before heading to Europe.

Its destination is believed to have been the Galician port of Vilagarcía de Arousa, where local authorities had been informed that members of narco group the Vilagarcía clan were awaiting a shipment from Columbia.

Despite attempts by the crew to sink the vessel once they realised they were being intercepted, the Spanish police managed to recover the illegal cargo and take the crew into custody before later towing the vessel to a nearby port where it has remained under guard since.

‘Libyan pirate’

While the ship was manned by a different crew on each occasion, the vessel’s owner, Salah Ali Mohammed El Hiblu, who describes himself on Facebook as a ‘Libyan pirate’, was also its owner when it was called the El Hiblu 1.

His brother, Nader, is understood to have been in command onboard the El Hiblu 1 and later testified that the teenagers had acted aggressively, though admitted no violence had taken place.

While records show the vessel was only acquired by El Hiblu in 2019, in a court hearing the same year he indicated he had been involved with the vessel four years before that.

“I built the ship in 2015 in Turkey,” he told the court, according to media reports.

El Hiblu did not answer summons to appear in court in the case of the Nehir.

Salah Ali Mohammed El Hiblu, the owner of the El Hiblu 1, which was later renamed the Nehir, calls himself a “Libyan pirate” on social media. Photo: FacebookSalah Ali Mohammed El Hiblu, the owner of the El Hiblu 1, which was later renamed the Nehir, calls himself a “Libyan pirate” on social media. Photo: Facebook

Swapping flags

Since the ship’s registration in 2015 – four years before the alleged hijacking – the vessel underwent four changes of flag, according to Spanish court documents.

Flying a Turkish flag when built, the ship was changed to a Palau flag in 2019, the day before the El Hiblu Three incident. The vessel reverted to a Turkish flag in September 2020 before being changed yet again two months later to a Palau flag in November the same year.

According to the US authorities, frequently changing flag, or ‘flag-hopping’, is viewed as a suspicious practice. “Bad actors may falsify the flag of their vessels to mask illicit trade. They may also repeatedly register with new flag states (‘flag hopping’) to avoid detection,” the US authorities said in a document entitled Guidance to Address Illicit Shipping and Sanctions Evasion Practices.

In March, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) named the Palau flag, a so-called ‘flag of convenience’, as one of the “worst flags operating in the Mediterranean Sea”.

“These flags take money from shipowners to register ships that other countries wouldn’t touch,” said ITF inspectorate coordinator Steve Trowsdale.

Journalists from Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI) first linked the El Hiblu 1 and the Nehir in a series of articles published last month, with defence lawyers in the El Hiblu 3 case being made aware of the findings last week.

What happened in March 2019?

In March 2019, the El Hiblu 1 rescued 108 migrants on a rubber boat who were at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean.

After realising they were being taken back to Libya – a country criticised by the United Nations, the US State Department and Amnesty International for its track record of human rights abuses against refugees – the 108 migrants panicked and protested the move.

During the protest, none of the crew were injured and the ship remained undamaged, with the three teenagers acting as mediators due to their English language skills. Witnesses said the three had stepped in to calm the situation and were subsequently beckoned to the bridge by the captain.

Upon their arrival in Malta, the three were arrested on charges of terrorism and hijacking and detained for seven months. Since then, they have lived in limbo while they wait for their case to be decided. Should they be convicted, they face up to 30 years in jail.

Last year, more than 1,000 people, including President Emeritus Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, signed an open letter to the attorney general insisting that the case be dropped and demanding the trio’s immediate release.

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