A search and rescue mission coordinator from the Armed Forces has told a court that he received orders from his superiors to send back a boatload of migrants to Libya in April 2020.

Captain Christian Francica was testifying in a constitutional case filed by lawyer Paul Borg Olivier on behalf of 52 asylum seekers who are suing the Maltese state for allegedly breaching their rights by forcing them back to Libya, which is not considered to be a safe port.

NGO Alarm Phone had alerted the Maltese authorities to a dinghy carrying migrants heading towards the Maltese search and rescue area.

Days later, on Easter Sunday, the migrants were rescued by a private Libyan-registered fishing vessel, the Dar Al Salam, engaged by Maltese authorities, and returned to Libya where they were placed in a detention centre.

“Who gave the order to send them back?” asked Borg Olivier when questioning the SAR mission coordinator.

“I received it from my superiors. I don’t know who took it [the decision],” Francica testified, recalling how he had relayed coordinates to the rescue vessel’s owner to ensure that the persons on board were not in danger, given the bad weather and sea conditions at the time.

“Then the decision to go back to Libya was communicated to me and I passed it on,” he added. 

“Where did it come from?” insisted the lawyer.

“From my chain of command. I have no right whatsoever to bring them [the migrants] into Maltese port, let alone take them to another country,” replied Francica.

The search and rescue operation had kicked off on April 12 when, the captain said, he had informed his superior that the AFM did not have a rescue vessel  available at that point in time.

“Strictly speaking, I could have stopped at coordination,” said the witness, explaining that the SAR Convention laid down that a state need not operate a vessel but only coordinate the rescue operation.

“Not only did we not have vessels available but no one answered our calls to carry out the rescue.”

However, they felt it was their duty to see whether any vessel was available.

At that point, the number of migrants involved was known but there was no information as to whether that number included women and children.

Asked about the [cargo ship] MV Ivan, Francica said that that was the only ship, which had answered a call to assist, making that an important point in the mission in ensuring that the migrants survived.

“It [the Ivan] could not take them on board but it was the only vessel that offered help.”

The migrants were eventually picked up by the private-owned Dar Al Salam boat.

The SAR mission coordinator could not tell exactly how that vessel was engaged. He said that all he knew was that after informing his superiors, he was given a vessel to work with and he did, explaining that he had communicated with someone called “Mr Grech.”

Carmelo Grech, the boat owner, previously testified that his vessel had been berthed at Bridge Wharf when the AFM called him and his crew to help in the rescue mission.

Grech had asked for fuel and the AFM made arrangements for that request to be met, said Francica, adding that since it was Easter Sunday it was not easy to find fuel suppliers and therefore he had contacted the army’s own supplier.

Food and water were sent by means of another vessel, the Tre Mar, but he was only “minimally” involved in that, said Francica, explaining that the owner of that boat, [Carmel] Baldacchino had “handled all that, just keeping him informed.”

Communication with Grech for SMC purposes stopped after the rescue, but from a humanitarian point of view, his conscience told him to continue to follow the migrants’ journey back to Libya, said the witness.

“After the order, what communication was there between your office and the offices in Tripoli?” asked Borg Olivier.

“No communication,” the captain replied. 

“Were all the persons saved?” intervened presiding judge Lawrence Mintoff.

“Some were already dead,” explained Francica, adding that sea and wind conditions had frustrated all attempts to recover the bodies.

Asked about the position of the boat and which land was nearest, the witness replied, “Malta was certainly not in sight… If I recall well, Tunis, Lampedusa and Libya.”

However, in such cases, it was not the distance, but sea and weather conditions, which were relevant, he said.

The case continues in March.

State Advocate Chris Soler represented the respondents, except for the AFM which was represented by lawyer Susanne Agius.

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