There were about 100 migrants on board when the incident occurred last Wednesday, and the master of the tanker, El Hiblu 1, said that some rescued migrants began to riot and threaten violence when they realized that they were being returned to Libya.
The suspects pleaded not guilty in court on Saturday. One of the accused was identified as Abdalla Bari, a 19-year-old from Guinea. A 15-year-old from Guinea and a 16-year-old from Ivory Coast could not be named because they were minors.
The Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) established communications with the captain of the tanker when it was about 30 nautical miles away and still proceeding towards Malta. The Captain repeatedly stated that he was not in control of the vessel and that he and his crew were being forced and threatened by a number of migrants to proceed to Malta.
Nader el-Hiblu, the Libyan captain of the El Hiblu 1, said: “They attacked the cockpit, heavily beating on the doors and the windows and they threatened to smash the boat. They went nuts and they were screaming and shouting: ‘Go back! Go back! Go back!’” he said.
Aid groups have reported that migrants are beaten, raped and tortured on a regular basis in Libyan detention camps.
AFM Patrol Vessel P21 stopped the tanker from entering the Maltese territorial waters. A Special Operations team was dispatched to board and secure the vessel and hand over control of the ship back to the master. The team was backed up by AFM Patrol Vessel P51, two Fast Interceptor Craft, and one the AFM’s 139 helicopters.
The three accused teenagers were denied bail, and The Times of Malta has now reported that the master now faces charges related to human smuggling, citing police sources. The police and inquiring magistrate are investigating the possibility that he could have “misled” the authorities by claiming he lost control of the vessel in order to enter Maltese waters.
2,299 people died at sea last year attempting to reach Europe. Over 300 people have died so far this year.