Migrants who forced a merchant vessel to head to Europe had not threatened or attacked its crew, the ship’s chief engineer testified on Tuesday, raising questions about whether vessel had genuinely been hijacked.
In a marathon session stretching throughout the day, the court heard the engineer explain how crew members of the El Hiblu 1 locked themselves in the ship’s bridge when migrants they had rescued grew restless and suspected they had been misled.
“They were ready to die. They were not thinking about themselves so they thought much less about us,” he said.
As the witness struggled to summarise the experience, the magistrate stepped in.
“So you felt overpowered,” he suggested.
The engineer initially appeared to admit that the crew had misled the rescued migrants, telling magistrate Aaron Bugeja “yes, we tricked them”.
Minutes later, he took that back.
“No, we didn’t trick them. It wasn’t our fault vessels did not show up to collect them as planned”.
Three young men charged
The El Hiblu 1 entered Malta on March 28 after Armed Forces members boarded the ship as it neared Maltese waters, following reports that migrants had seized control of the vessel and forced it to head to Europe.
Five people were subsequently arrested by Maltese police and three of those, teenagers aged 15, 16 and 19, have been charged with crimes amounting to terrorist activity.
The engineer’s testimony prompted a series of stern questions from magistrate Aaron Bugeja, who asked why the ship’s captain had claimed he had injured crew members on board.
Reading from transcripts of conversations between the captain of the El Hiblu 1 and AFM officials, the magistrate noted how the ship’s captain had told local officials that “I have crew injured on board. Many people fight with me because I did not want to come to Malta. They broke my vessel”.
In his testimony, the ship’s engineer said that the El Hiblu 1 had picked up the 100-odd migrants after receiving instructions to come to their rescue by authorities in Rome.
Some of the migrants being rescued had initially refused to board the ship, fearing they would be returned to Libya.
The El Hiblu 1’s first officer had promised them that would not happen, and they had recanted. The ship had set sail for a rescue point where it expected to transfer the rescued migrants to another ship. No ship had arrived at that point, and the El Hiblu 1 had promptly veered towards Libya while the migrants slept on deck.
When the sun rose the following morning and the migrants spotted Libya’s coast in the distance, tensions had escalated.
Around 15 of the migrants started banging on the bridge with spanners and metal pipes they found on the deck, the engineer recalled, with the ship’s first officer eventually letting three of them in to talk.
Two of the three, who the ship’s engineer engineer identified as two of the accused, had ordered the crew to head to Europe and threatened to cause damage if they were followed by Libyan vessels or planes.
They had also ordered the crew not to speak among themselves in Arabic or to contact port authorities in Libya.
Head to Europe, they had told him.
The El Hiblu 1 was running low on fuel, the engineer recalled.
“I took one of the men down to the engine room to show him we did not have enough fuel to make it to Europe,” he testified. But the hijacker was having none of that. Fuel or no fuel, he said, they would be going to Europe.
With that settled, the three interlocutors had told the migrants outside the bridge to calm down.
The vessel approached Malta at around 3am on March 28. Maltese authorities, he recalled, had instructed the crew to place migrants on the port side of the vessel. The three teens charged as ringleaders remained inside the bridge.
Earlier in the day, the court heard testimony from police inspectors roped in on the case once the El Hiblu 1 had docked as well as AFM witnesses who told the court that the ship's captain had clearly and repeatedly told authorities "my vessel under piracy".
The owner of the El Hiblu 1 told the court that he had had the vessel built from scratch in 2015.
The ship had been dry docked in Turkey and was headed to Tripoli, he said.
The case continues on Wednesday.
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