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Editorial: In a procedural legal limbo

By now, the story is well-known nationally and internationally. Those who have collectively become known as the El Hiblu 3 – aged just 15,16 and 19 – left Libya in March 2019.

The rubber boat in which they were travelling, with over 100 others, began to deflate after just a few hours. 

Fortunately, they were spotted by an aircraft and were subsequently rescued. Almost immediately, their luck ran out and, since, their lives have descended into what can only be described as an utter nightmare. 

The captain of the rescue ship, the El Hiblu – on route from Istanbul to Tripoli – tried, unlawfully (but on the instruction of EU officials), to take them back to Libya, not accepted by relevant international human rights and humanitarian bodies to be a ‘place of safety’. 

Following scenes of despair and panic, those on board began to strongly protest, eventually leading to the captain changing course for Malta. 

While the Maltese and Italian governments and commentators began to speak of ‘hijacking’ and ‘an act of piracy’, the Armed Forces of Malta intercepted the ship and escorted it to harbour, while undertaking investigations on board. 

When the ship docked in Malta, the authorities arrested five people. Two men were subsequently released while the others were detained, initially at Corradino prior to their release on bail in November 2019.

If convicted, they face up to 30 years in prison in a case that is now, for no good reason, stalled.

The El Hiblu 3 – one of whom now appears to have gone missing – remain charged with a series of crimes including “acts of terrorism”, “illegal arrest, detention and confinement”, “private violence” against persons and property as well as threatening behaviour. 

Despite this, no evidence has emerged of injury or damage to people or to the ship in relation to the events.

What happened in this case must be assessed in the context of an ongoing and systematic cycle of grave human rights abuses in Libya, including unlawful killing, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual violence and forced labour. Many international organisations argue that such issues must be considered in judging the actions of those on board the El Hiblu faced with return to Libya.

All three have consistently denied any wrongdoing and argue that the ship’s chief officer relied on them to mediate and communicate with the others rescued in order to maintain calm on board. Since their release on bail, they have filed asylum applications in Malta.

Prosecutors in the case concluded their work more than six months ago. However, the attorney general has not yet decided or informed the court whether she intends to continue with the case. So, these three young men along with their families remain in a procedural legal limbo, unsure whether they will be tried as terrorists or allowed to continue with their lives.

The ongoing tactic of delay by the AG raises a number of fundamental issues – the commitment of her office to the principles of due process and justice, the ever-increasing erosion of public trust in our justice system and, ultimately the suspicion of institutionalised racism. As stated by protestors earlier this month, cases such as this must be seen to be both fair and just and devoid of political messaging or the flexing of ‘deterrence’ muscle.

Fundamentally, it represents an unacceptable injustice towards those involved. It also suggests that, in the short-term political interests of Malta’s government, the rights of individuals can be ignored, a situation that can never be tolerated.