Finance Minister Clyde Caruana on Friday described his efforts, as former OPM chief of staff, to source additional boats to rescue lives at sea on Easter Sunday last year, in an operation that resulted in a pushback of migrants to Libya.

The minister took the witness stand in a constitutional case filed by lawyer Paul Borg Olivier on behalf of 52 asylum seekers who are suing the Maltese state over an alleged breach of rights as a result of that pushback.

On that occasion, NGO AlarmPhone had flagged the fate of a dinghy of migrants heading towards the Maltese search and rescue area.

A private-owned fishing vessel registered in Libya, the Dar Al Salam, was engaged by Maltese authorities to rescue the migrants who were subsequently returned to Libya and placed in a detention centre. 

The Dar Al Salam also sailed under the name Mae Yemenja.

Recalling the episode, Caruana said that as head of secretariat at OPM his concern was to safeguard those lives and avoid “more graves” at sea, knowing that migrant boats sailing from the south outnumbered the AFM’s flotilla.

“I sought additional rescue boats,” said Caruana, explaining the difficulty in finding help and food supplies given that it was Easter Sunday.

“My only role was to source sea vessels for the rescue,” he insisted when Borg Olivier asked specifically about his personal initiative in the operation. 

He had tried thinking of who could possibly lend a hand until “someone suggested [Carmelo] Grech”, the owner of a fishing vessel who had been involved in similar operations in the past. 

“Who suggested that,” was the next question. 

Curmi sought a vessel

“I don’t recall,” replied Caruana highlighting the particular scenario at the time, soon after the COVID-19 outbreak when ports were under lockdown while migrants were sailing from the south.

Citing AFM commander Jeffrey Curmi’s testimony at the magisterial inquiry into the incident, Borg Olivier pointed out that Curmi had said he had “spoken to the OPM” to see whether a vessel could be sought.

“That confirms what I said,” Caruana replied, confirming that the reference to “OPM” signified his own role and that he had directly contacted the owner of the fishing vessel.

“Who directed you to Grech? Was it someone else at the OPM,” the lawyer pressed.

Caruana’s reply was a straightforward “no”.

The Dar Al Salam and the TreMar were engaged for rescue purposes while another vessel, the Salvae Regina, was sourced to deliver food supplies, testified Caruana, explaining that he had contacted Conrad Baldacchino to source the necessary supplies.

“Since it was Easter Sunday, it was difficult to get foodstuff from supermarkets or shops,” the minister went on, recalling how he had called Baldacchino around midday or early afternoon.

A verbal spat ensued between the applicants’ lawyer and state advocate Chris Soler over the issue of payment for those supplies. 

The bill was definitely settled but the former chief of staff could not tell who had issued the receipt. 

As the line of questioning persisted, Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff pointed out that since the witness had moved up the rank to minister, he was no longer in a position to track any such receipt. 

Moreover, even as chief of staff, Caruana would not delve into such matters at micro level, the judge observed. 

Answering one last question by the state advocate, the minister clarified that the government had provided diesel for the vessels and he was not aware of any additional payment. 

Baldacchino, director of a ship supplies company, testified next and confirmed the call from “Clyde Caruana at OPM” on Good Friday, asking for help to transport foodstuffs to Libya.

Dominic Tanti, sea captain and owner of the Salvae Regina, was roped in for the job and, that same day, some 40 pellets of supplies, mainly water, were loaded onto the vessel from Baldacchino’s stores. 

As for the relative invoice, Baldacchino said that it had been issued to “Foreign Affairs, if I’m not mistaken”.

“Was it paid,” asked the court.

“Yes,” confirmed the witness.

But he had not been told why those supplies were needed and his only task had been to provide them and pass on the coordinates to the captain.

Evidence has so far focused upon the preliminary plea of jurisdiction raised by the respondents.

Prime Minister Robert Abela is expected to testify during the next sitting.

He was unable to attend Friday’s hearing since he is currently abroad on official duties.

Lawyer Suzanne Agius represented the AFM.

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