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On the 25th of March, 2019, a small rubber boat left Garabulli, a Libyan coastal town an hour east of Tripoli. Aboard were approximately 114 people, including at least 15 children, seeking safety, sanctuary and a new life in Europe.
After a few hours at sea, when the heavily overladen boat started to sway, it began to look like the passengers’ fate would be the same as so many others who have attempted that treacherous journey across the Mediterranean. But the next day, after many traumatic and terrifying hours at sea, those on the rubber boat spotted the El Hiblu 1, an oil tanker en route from Istanbul to Tripoli. When the tanker reached the smaller vessel, a crew member told them to stop the engines and climb onboard.
Realising the El Hiblu 1 was not a rescue ship, those on the rubber boat asked where they were heading. A crewman told them they were bound for Tripoli. Faced with the imminent danger of drowning, and following assurances from the crew that they would not be returned to Libya, most – including three young boys, aged 15, 16 and 19 – climbed aboard. Six men, too scared of the risk of being taken back to Libya, decided to remain on the dinghy. Their fate remains unknown.
Once onboard, the chief officer of El Hiblu 1, who spoke English, told the rescued people again that he would not return them to Libya. He relied on the youngest of the three young boys – who was 15 at the time, and one of the few to speak English fluently – to translate the information to the other people onboard.
“[The Chief Officer] swore on the Koran that he would never take us back to Libya,” says the youngest boy, who we’ll call Ibrahim.
Reassured and finally safe, the rescued people fell asleep.
On the morning of the 27th of March, two days after they had departed Garabulli, the group awoke to the sight of the Libyan coastline on the horizon. They had been lied to.
“People started crying and shouting, because they were afraid to go back and some had children,” Ibrahim told Amnesty. “They shouted, ‘We don’t want to go to Libya!’ ‘We prefer to die!’ Because if they take you back to Libya, they put you in a room, they torture you, you only eat once a day. When they take women to prison, the Libyans choose the ones they like and take them by force. And some people put you in a private prison and call your family and ask to bring money to give [you] freedom.”
The atmosphere on the tanker was frantic. Facing the prospect of being returned to Libya, and the threat of torture, rape and death, those on the deck panicked.
“[The Chief Officer] invited me into the cabin, trying to show me what [made him] decide to take us to Libya,” Ibrahim told VICE. “After showing [me] that, he asked me to talk to people to calm [them] down, but I was unable to calm the situation down and came back to him and tried to convince [him to turn around], by telling him the consequences if he [were to] take us back to Libya. Finally, we were able to convince him.”
To reassure him that he would stick to his word, the Chief Officer told Ibrahim and the two other teenagers that they could remain in the cabin to check the boat’s direction on the navigation displays.
“We were friendly in the cabin,” remembers Ibrahim. “There was no violence. In short, I think the captain felt sorry for us.”
The next day, the 28th of March, 2019, the Armed Forces of Malta ordered the ship to stop before it entered Malta’s territorial waters. Despite the calm on board, the El Hiblu 1 communicated to the Maltese authorities that the rescued people had taken control of the ship and were forcing the crew to press forwards to Malta.
In the following hours, members of the Maltese Armed Forces boarded the vessel. Onboard, they found no evidence of injuries or violence – instead, just over 100 scared, exhausted people huddling on deck.
As the boat docked in Malta, the three young men were arrested and led down the gangway in handcuffs. After being taken straight to the headquarters of the Malta police force, they were charged with a litany of serious offences, included terrorism-related charges. All three – including the two minors – were initially detained in the high security section of Corradino prison, an adult detention facility. The two children would later be transferred to a juvenile detention centre. It would be almost eight months to the day before they were bailed, on the 20th of November, 2019.
A year later, the three – all living in open centres for asylum-seekers in Malta – still await trial.
“Until today, it remains very unclear to them and us why they’ve been accused and imprisoned in the first place,” says Jelka Kretzschmar, who is supporting the three for SeaWatch, an NGO that conducts search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. “They’ve been rescued from a rubber boat, with over 100 other people, and if they’ve done something at all, it is trying to avoid being returned to a brutal fate in Libya. They should be celebrated for reaching a safe harbour and for preventing 108 people from being returned to a place where they face torture, rape and slavery. Just a few months ago, three Sudanese teenagers were shot dead after they were returned to Libya.”
The story reads like the plot of a Netflix thriller, but for the boys – who have come to be known as the El Hiblu 3 – it could not be more real. If successfully prosecuted, they face life imprisonment. Though evidence is still being collected, the police and the ship's captain have stated that no violence was used. To date, none of the other rescued passengers have been interviewed or offered the chance to give evidence. Media reports from the court proceedings confirm that there was no violence or damage to the ship. And yet, the charges still loom large, casting a shadow over the lives of these three young men.
The case comes as tensions in Malta increase. Between 2013 and 2017, tens of thousands of people attempted the crossing from Libya to Europe every year. At the time, neighbouring Italy was conducting or coordinating most of the rescues and sheltering Malta from many of the arrivals.
As the political climate across Europe has soured – and images like those of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey have faded from the collective memory – many of these rescue operations have ceased. Despite an overall decrease in the number of people arriving across the region, Malta has seen an increase, leading many politicians and media outlets on the island to declare the situation to be “out of control”.
“The Maltese authorities have used dangerous and illegal tactics, including pushbacks to Libya, to prevent the arrival of refugees and migrants on their shores,” says Matteo de Bellis, researcher on asylum and migration at Amnesty International. “The government has also supported Europe’s strategy of assisting the Libyan Coast Guard to trap people in Libya, even if this exposes women, men and children to arbitrary detention, torture, rape, killings and exploitation.
“It is against this background that we need to understand what happened on the El Hiblu. When a group of refugees and migrants protested against being returned to Libya to face horrors they knew far too well, Maltese authorities chose to portray and treat them as dangerous criminals. As a result, three boys who only wanted to study, work to provide for their families and play football have ended up behind bars and, now, on the dock.”
In this environment, the situation for the El Hiblu 3 looks bleak. The oldest is married and has a young child, born in Malta. The middle boy faces being moved from a juvenile open centre for migrants to an adult centre, meaning he’ll no longer be around to provide support for the youngest, who’s also living in the centre and simply wishes to be able to go to school and get on with his life.
“These three kids – they really are kids – all they wanted to do was help the captain speak to the people,” says Neil Falzon, the boys’ lawyer. “Three kids caught in the middle of this complex political, legal, commercial situation – they really are the scapegoats, and it’s the misfortune of the 16-year-old that he could speak English. It’s ridiculously unfair that they’re being picked on this way. They have their whole lives ahead of them, but they’re on hold because of the intense stress of this moment.”
Click here to take part in Amnesty International's Write for Rights campaign, or here if you live in Canada. Your action could help pressure Maltese authorities to drop all charges against the three, and let them live their young lives free of the threat of imprisonment.