The three El Hiblu teenagers involved in a court case that has been dragging on since March 2019 had stepped in to calm the situation, a court heard on Thursday.

The events on board the ship were recounted in court during criminal proceedings continued against the teenagers, who are currently facing the prospect of a 30-year jail term for terrorist activity after being accused of hijacking the ship. 

The case against the three youths, aged 15, 16 and 19 at the time of the incident, has made international media headlines and triggered persistent calls from human rights activists around the world for charges to be dropped. 

Two migrants among the boat people who left Libya in small vessels along with the three teens recounted their experience in court in the presence of members of Amnesty International who turned up for the sitting. 

At around 5am on the following day of their rescue by the “big ship” the migrants spotted land ahead and those among them who had previously worked in Libya realised that they were heading there.

Panic broke out, with persons on board crying, shouting and even threatening to jump off the vessel because they did not want to be taken back to Libya.

That was when the three youths, whom the witness identified in court, stepped in to calm the situation. They were soon approached by the captain, who beckoned them to his cabin, not once but twice.

Seated in the middle of the group, the teenagers sought to reassure their fellow migrants that all would be well and that arrangements had been made for two boats to take them to Europe.

“It was thanks to them that we calmed down and no one got hurt. Personally I did not see anything afterwards because I was so tired that I fell asleep,” went on the witness. 

Facing cross examination by defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud, the witness confirmed that men, women and children had panicked because they feared they would face torture and ill-treatment if they were sent back to Libya.

But once the captain changed direction and the three youths had relayed his message that two boats would take them to Europe, calm was restored and the situation remained so until Maltese people “wearing khaki uniforms” boarded the ship, said the witness.

The witness said that he had seen no objects in the youth’s hands as they headed to the captain’s cabin and confirmed that all communication between migrants and the ship’s crew had been handled by the accused.

His testimony was briefly interrupted by an incident involving a man who had been standing at the back of the courtroom throughout the proceedings.

Some indecipherable comment by this man attracted the attention of presiding magistrate Nadine Lia, who rebuked him sharply pointing out that, in a court of law, such suggestions to a witness were not acceptable.

After asking the man to step forward and supply his personal details to the court deputy, the magistrate ordered him to leave the room.

But the man, seeming not to have grasped the import of the magistrate’s words, uttered some other remark to the witness as he headed towards the door, earning another sharp rebuke.

“What have you just said? You cannot speak to any witness. This is a court of law,” the magistrate rapped, as the man sought to explain that he had simply been telling the witness that he would leave. 

Following that interruption, the sitting proceeded calmly. 

Another migrant who took the witness stand earlier could recall very little, insisting that at the time he was on board the “big ship” he had eye problems, was in pain and, therefore, had not seen much of what was taking place around him. 

“My eyes were disturbing me,” said the witness, explaining that he had received treatment thanks to help he received in Malta and was much better today. 

“Did you hear anything,” probed prosecuting Inspector Omar Zammit. 

“I don’t see no violence. If I hear I tell you, but I see and hear nothing,” insisted the witness, explaining that he had sat outside on board the big ship, surrounded by others.

At one point AG lawyer George Camilleri drew the magistrate’s attention to the fact that the witness was wearing earphones. 

The court directed him to remove those as well as his mobile phone, telling him to place them on a nearby desk while he continued with his testimony. 

Asked to look round the courtroom, the witness identified the three accused, pointing his finger at them and smiling. 

They used to live at Ħal Far tent village together but he had since he moved to a room on his own and had therefore lost touch with them, the witness explained.

The case continues next week.

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