Three teenagers accused of hijacking a merchant vessel and forcing it to head to Malta were the ringleaders who led the alleged uprising aboard the ship, its captain insisted in court on Wednesday.
The captain of the El Hiblu 1 told the court that the accused – who are aged just 15, 16 and 19 – acted aggressively and circled the bridge, making sure the ship was heading to Malta at full throttle.
The three teens face charges which amount to terrorist activity under Maltese law.
“No Libya, go Malta!” the captain recalled them ordering, saying that the three had worked together to make sure the El Hiblu 1 did not return to Libya, as was the captain’s intention.
Captain Nader El Hiblu, 42, admitted that there had been no violence and that he was the only person steering the ship all throughout.
“We did as we were told to avoid being hurt,” he told the court. “We felt outnumbered”.
The El Hiblu 1 was stormed by AFM troops in the early hours of March 28 as it entered Maltese waters. The ship’s captain had said that his vessel was “under piracy”, with a group of migrants he had rescued late on March 26 having forced him to head north towards Europe.
Under cross-examination on Wednesday, the captain said he had first made contact with Maltese authorities when the El Hiblu 1 was close to Malta. He had not made any mention of being hijacked, he admitted.
“I wanted to keep things calm,” he said in court.
Was it true that the crew had suggested mentioning a hijack, to give them a better chance of entering Malta, the defence asked.
“I was steering the ship at the time,” the captain replied. “I cannot answer that question”.
The El Hiblu 1 had rescued the group of 100-odd migrants after receiving instructions to do so by Italian authorities, the captain recalled. A rescue plane flying overhead had then instructed him to take the group to a defined location, where a ship would be waiting.
Once there, however, the El Hiblu 1 found no trace of the alleged ship. The captain had tried to make contact but received no reply, and after waiting a while, had decided to change course and head for Tripoli, he testified in court.
On Tuesday, the ship’s chief engineer had testified that the vessel had spent just 30 minutes at the designated meeting point before heading for Libya. The ship’s captain, however, on Wednesday claimed that the ship waited for six hours – from 6pm to midnight – before sailing to Tripoli.
Trouble began brewing early the following morning, he said, when migrants woke up and spotted Libya’s coastline in the distance.
“We sensed something would happen and locked ourselves in,” he told the court. “A group of 20 or 25 got hold of anything they could lay their hands on and began to bang on the glass,” he said.
One of the accused, whose names are being withheld under court order, had banged on the glass using an iron key. Another had also banged and covered all the cameras. The third, the captain said, had served as an interpreter because he spoke English.
When pressed, the captain denied reporting injuries to Maltese authorities.
That prompted magistrate Aaron Bugeja to step in and read from transcripts between the El Hiblu 1 and Maltese authorities, in which the ship said some crew members had been injured.
“That was the chief engineer speaking,” the captain said.
The ship captain had initially tried to steer the ship as slowly as he could, in the hope that the Libyan coast guard would catch up and intervene. The three accused had realised, though, and demanded that he set sail at full throttle.
They had remained there, by his side, until the vessel approached Malta and AFM troops prepared to storm the ship, the captain said.
Lawyers Cedric Mifsud, Neil Falzon, Gianluca Cappitta and Malcolm Mifsud were counsel for the defence.
Inspector Omar Zammit prosecuted.
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