The Office of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern at how three teenagers who stand accused of leading an alleged hijack at sea are being handled.

In a statement on Tuesday, a spokesman described the charges the three suspects face as “exaggerated” and urged prosecutors to reconsider them.

The three accused – aged 15, 16 and 19 - have been charged with crimes amounting to terrorist activity.

Last month, Times of Malta revealed they were being held at Corradino Correction Facility, a prison for adults. The two minors were subsequently moved to a prison for juvenile offenders.  

The El Hiblu 1 was taken over by Armed Forces of Malta personnel and brought to port late in March after its captain issued an alert saying the vessel had been hijacked by a group of migrants rescued at sea.

According to accounts in court, some of the migrants brought aboard the vessel grew restless after discovering that the captain was taking them back to Libya.

Many exhibited signs of torture, ill-treatment

The OHCHR also expressed alarm at the way in which the three were originally held in custody.

Read: Teens ordered hijacked ship to 'go Malta', captain testifies

“In spite of the fact that two of them are minors, all three of the accused were held in the high-security division of an adult prison after they were reportedly interrogated by the authorities without being appointed legal guardians or placed in the care of independent child protection officials, responsible for ensuring their best interests,” the OHCHR said.

The agency noted the difficult conditions many of the migrants aboard the El Hiblu 1 had escaped – “many were dehydrated and exhibited clear signs of torture and ill-treatment, including several children”. It urged Maltese authorities to take good care of them.

Libya, it reiterated, was “very clearly” not a safe port with multiple, repeated accounts of indefinite detention, trafficking, starvation and beatings.

All three minors facing charges are due to appear in court on May 20.

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