El Hiblu 3 ‘political pawns’ says activist Maria Pisani following indictment

Activist Maria Pisani says Bill of Indictment against the El Hiblu 3 felt like a ‘kick to the stomach’ when asked to describe their emotion following the Attorney General’s decision

The three young men had been the only English speakers on the vessel that rescued them and 108 other migrants, acting as interlocutors between the ship’s captain and the migrants
The three young men had been the only English speakers on the vessel that rescued them and 108 other migrants, acting as interlocutors between the ship’s captain and the migrants

Human rights activist Maria Pisani said the indictment of the three young men from the Ivory Coast and Guinea known as the El Hiblu 3, felt like a “kick to the stomach”.

“All this for what? Because they stepped up when others didn’t? All they did was translate!” Pisani told MaltaToday.

The activist and academic was reacting to the Attorney General’s decision to indict Koni Tiemoko Abdoul Khader, Amara Kromah and Abdalla Bari, who were still teenagers in 2019 when they had been charged with hijacking the El Hiblu 1, the oil tanker that had rescued them and 108 other people fleeing Libya from the sea.

Prosecutors claim the defendants had coerced the captain into not returning them to Libya, where they feared persecution and torture.

It emerged in court that the trio, who were the only English speakers among the rescued group, had been acting as interpreters between the ship’s captain and the asylum seekers.

But although the overwhelming majority of witnesses in the lengthy compilation of evidence told the court that no violence or threats were made, prosecutors gave more weight to the testimony of the vessel’s captain who had radioed the Maltese authorities to inform them that his vessel had been hijacked by pirates.

“They are political pawns, it’s absolutely devastating,” Pisani told MaltaToday.

Pisani, who has followed proceedings closely over the past four years, was asked to describe their emotion following the indictment.

“It’s like a kick to the stomach. Shock, disappointment… and hope,” she said.

Asked to elaborate further why they are hopeful, Pisani said they still have faith in the justice system.

“We all have, or rather should have faith in the justice system, but it’s very difficult for that faith to not waiver,” she said. “They are men today, but I see them as boys, I know them as boys, I saw them grow up.”

She insisted the Attorney General (AG) has to make sense of the situation and drop the charges. “There’s still time.”

Reacting to the indictment, the accused’s defence said the AG has “weaponised the law”.

“It took the Attorney General over four years to issue a harsh and ill-thought-out Bill of Indictment against our two clients in relation to the El Hiblu incident. On 8 November a total of nine charges were brought against the two young men, including the unfounded terrorism charges and other equally unsubstantiated charges,” the men’s defence lawyers said in a statement to the press.

The lawyers have filed a reply to the indictment before the Criminal Court, outlining their objections to the AG’s version of the facts and requesting the Court to dismiss all charges.

They argue lack of jurisdiction, stating that no evidence was presented to show that any crime had been committed in Maltese territory, and accuse the Attorney General of stretching the interpretation of some of the charges to an extent that renders them null and void.

“The defence believes that such an interpretation weaponizes the law against asylum seekers,” said lawyer Neil Falzon.

The Bill of indictment also saw international humanitarian organisation Amnesty International slamming the move.

“The Attorney General has taken more than four-and-a-half years to make the worst possible decision,” said Elisa De Pieri, the group’s regional researcher. “The indictment fails to recognize that they were part of a group of more than 100 asylum-seekers faced with an illegal pushback to Libya which would have put their lives at risk. Yet, they are the ones who might now need to defend themselves against charges ranging from ‘acts of terrorism’ to ‘violence’.”

De Pieri added that the compilation of evidence that led to the indictment has been marred by serious procedural irregularities, such as the detention of the three men in adult facilities when they were still minors, their prosecution in adult courts, and the failure to call key witnesses to testify.