Heroes, not ‘terrorists’: The trial of the ElHiblu3 in Malta

Three migrants have been charged with ‘terrorism’ in Malta after a tanker that rescued them took them to Europe.

The El Hiblu3 were arrested in March 2019 in Malta as the ring leaders of a protest on board a vessel to Europe and have since been accused of several crimes, including 'terrorism' [Joanna Demarco/Amnesty International]

Three young African men stand with bowed heads and folded arms in a courtroom in Malta, quietly listening to the proceedings carried out in Maltese, a language they do not understand. Some time later, they are placed in handcuffs and transported from the court back to a “correctional facility”.

This is how the three experienced their first seven months in Europe – between a courtroom in Valletta and a prison cell. They had imagined it differently. “We escaped tyrannical and inhumane treatments in Libya,” writes one of them in a letter addressed to those organising a campaign for their release, “to find life in Malta”.

The three had left Libya on a rubber boat in March 2019, together with more than 100 other migrants escaping torture and incarceration in Libya. From the coast of Garabulli, they sought to reach Europe but their engine failed them, leaving them adrift at sea. After some time, they were detected by an aeroplane belonging to the European Union’s Operation Sophia which instructed a commercial vessel in the vicinity – the ElHiblu1 – to carry out a rescue operation.

Arriving at the scene, the crew of the ElHiblu1 proceeded to take the distressed on board but some refused to board the ship. Scared to be returned to Libya, several migrants decided to stay behind on the rubber boat. There has been no trace of them since. The other 108 boarded the ElHiblu1 and were told that they would be brought to Europe. However, the captain of the ElHiblu1, instructed by European authorities, steered towards Libya.

When approaching the Libyan shores, the 108 migrants realised that they were being pushed back. They felt betrayed and scared. Some begged and screamed, others threatened to jump overboard. Three of them, the accused, started to mediate between the group of migrants and the crew, using their English skills to translate and generate mutual understanding.

Facing their distress and collective protest, the captain stopped the engine six miles off the Libyan coast, turned around, and steered north. The three migrant mediators were invited to join Elhiblu1’s chief officer in his cabin to monitor the direction of the journey.

Soon after, the incident turned into a media spectacle. Referring to the situation on board the ElHiblu1 as a hijacking, Italy’s then-Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, dominated the media narrative in which the distressed migrants fleeing war and torture were portrayed as pirates and “terrorists”.

Approaching Maltese waters, the vessel was stormed by the Maltese military and escorted to the harbour of Valletta. Upon landing, the three who had mediated between the migrant group and the crew were swiftly arrested and accused of having committed multiple crimes, including acts of “terrorism”.

The charges against the three, who at that time were 15, 16 and 19 years old, are serious – if found guilty, they could face life sentences. While they were released on bail after spending seven months in prison, they have to register daily with the police and continue to face an arduous trial. Hearings are repeatedly postponed or adjourned and little progress has been made over the past 24 months.

Clearly, the farcical trial of the three migrants is yet another attempt to criminalise precarious forms of migration to Europe while hiding the violence of European border enforcement operations. Maltese authorities, including the armed forces, have faced a string of allegations over recent years, including acts of non-assistance of the distressed, illegal offshore detention of migrants, the sabotage of migrant boats, and even active involvement in a deadly push-back operation to Libya that cost twelve lives in April 2020.

That three young African men, who we collectively refer to as ElHiblu3, face a trial for preventing a push-back to Libya and are even accused of “terrorism” speaks to a shifting climate in Europe where migration and acts of solidarity are increasingly criminalised while forms of border violence are not only tolerated but openly accepted.

In the meantime, a solidarity campaign has emerged that includes several survivors of the incident who have made clear that the ElHiblu3 had not harmed anyone but, to the contrary, had saved everyone’s lives by translating and mediating between the rescued and the crew of the vessel. For them, it is clear that the three should be regarded as heroes, not criminals.

A campaign, Free the ElHiblu3, calls for the immediate dismissal of the trial and regards the prosecution of the ElHiblu3 as part of a Europe-wide and systematic attempt to subdue acts of solidarity and dissent at Europe’s borders.

Besides the trial in Malta, the campaigners point to migrant criminalisation efforts in Greece, where two minors were sentenced to five years in prison for arson in March 2021 or where a father of a child who died during the sea crossing faces up to 10 years in prison. They also point to Italy, where several human rights activists and NGOs face charges of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration”, simply for having rescued thousands in distress at sea.

In November 2020, Amnesty International called on the Maltese authorities to drop the charges and release the ElHiblu3, stating: “These three boys fled Libya. Now they find themselves in the dock just for opposing the unlawful attempt of a ship captain to take them back there to face the violence and abuse they were trying to leave behind.”

Two years have passed since the non-violent migrant protest on board the ElHiblu1 prevented a push-back to Libya. Two of the ElHiblu3 have found a stable work environment in Malta, one has become a father, and all three want to return to school one day for further education. But their trial prevents them from realising the life they had sought in Europe, one of safety, dignity, and freedom. As one of them wrote in his letter to us:

“When we finally had the opportunity to escape the inhumane treatments in Libya, we couldn’t afford to be returned to a place where our freedoms and safety were not guaranteed anymore and coming to Malta was the only option we had to save our lives. In defence of our lives, we resisted by protesting and I, along with two others, served as translators because we had some basic knowledge in English. We did not do this with any bad intentions and we have no plans to pose threats or danger to the people of Malta.”

On the second anniversary of their landing in Malta, the ElHiblu3 campaign asks the Maltese and international public for support: Solidarity, they say, is not a crime.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.