VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — An Amnesty International delegation is in Malta this week, calling for charges to be dropped against three rescued migrants accused of commandeering a merchant ship in 2019 and forcing it to go to Europe rather than back to Libya.
The Amnesty delegation plans to attend a Feb. 3 hearing of the migrants, who are accused of unlawfully seizing control of the ship, called the El Hiblu 1. Under Maltese law, unlawfully seizing control of ship can be considered a terrorist activity and is punishable by anything between seven and 30 years in prison.
The three were among some 108 migrants who were rescued at sea by the Turkish oil tanker in late March 2019. They allegedly revolted against being taken back to Libya and forced the ship to come to Malta instead. The three were 15, 16 and 19 years old at the time and pleaded not guilty after being arraigned in Valletta soon after they arrived.
The case gained widespread notoriety, with Italy’s then interior minister, the right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini, calling the incident an act of piracy. Some aid groups, however, called it an act of self-defense against Europe’s immigration policies, which seek to return desperate migrants to Libya, where they often face beatings, rape and torture in detention camps.
The European Court of Human Rights in 2012 condemned Italy for its “pushback” practice using its own coast guard to intercept a migrant boat and return its passengers to Libya. In more recent years, the EU has come under fire for funding Libyan coast guard vessels that intercept the migrants and bring them back to shore.
“This case is essentially about an attempted pushback to Libya, which would have been illegal,” said Elisa de Pieri, a researcher in Amnesty’s European regional office.
“We are calling for the prosecution to drop all the charges against them,” she added.
She noted that the U.N. considers that Libya isn’t considered a safe port, and that the young men were merely trying to defend the other migrants against danger.
“Libya is not a place of safety,” she said, adding that the Amnesty delegation wants to emphasize through their presence at the hearing that the people on board the El Hiblu had no good option.
“This trial has dragged for nearly three years and nothing much is happening. The prosecution has been very slow in doing things that should have been done at the beginning,” de Pieri said.
The case is still in the compilation of evidence stage, and a final verdict isn’t expected anytime soon.