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An award for Resilience and hope, a case with many grey areas, what was the real crime?

Updated: May 30

In a world often shadowed by the complexities of immigration and asylum, the story of three young African immigrants in Malta stands out as a beacon of resilience and perseverance. These youths endured a protracted legal battle that spann already over five gruelling years, all while under the heavy accusation of terrorism charges they incurred simply for acting as mediators and translators during a desperate journey from Libya to Europe.

An award ceremony was organized by activists who have been supporting the young men under judicial limbo for now 5 yrs..

Amara, Abdalla and Abdul’s linguistic skills became an unintended gateway to accusations of terrorism. Their efforts to facilitate communication between distressed passengers and coast guards were misinterpreted as hijacking.  Instead of receiving gratitude, they were apprehended upon arrival and thrust into a lengthy legal ordeal.

Locked in a foreign legal system, away from family and familiar cultural comforts, they have faced immense psychological and emotional challenges, especially because of their young age. Their plight highlights not just personal struggle but also the broader issues of immigration policies and the stigmatization often faced by refugees and migrants.

The support for these young men has been robust and international. Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have rallied behind them, advocating for a fair trial and the upholding of human rights standards. These groups have stressed the importance of distinguishing between genuine criminal acts and the actions of individuals thrust into roles by circumstance, especially in chaotic and life-threatening situations like those often encountered during migration by sea.

Moreover, their case has garnered attention not only for its legal implications but also for the human story at its core — a tale of young lives interrupted, of potential stifled by geopolitical and bureaucratic entanglements. This aspect of their journey was recently recognized in an emotional ceremony on 13th April 2024, at Valletta Campus, University of Malta, where they were awarded a human rights accolade. This award not only acknowledges their individual courage and dignity in the face of relentless adversity but also symbolizes a collective acknowledgment of their ordeal.

Activists, journalists, musicians, writers, government officials and sympathisers attended the event. There were speeches, testimonies, music, poem readings, emotional talks. among which we could spot among the speakers.


Regine Nguini Psaila from African Media spoke about the plight of racism, she said that many  people of African descent find out to be Black in the West. “discovering to be black” comes like an illumination, it means that you have been exposed to small pieces of micro racism every day, piece by piece, day after day, until the eureka moment, when in a flash, you realize that many of your social challenges are all about a color!”

She added that discovering to be Black is an extremely unpleasant moment, before one gets eventually used to it, before one develops a defensive and protective mechanism. For her, such a protective mechanism is built  with the  help and support of the institutions.

She added that Racism in Europe today is systemic and institutionalised.

Antoine Cassar, Author of  a poem titled ‘Passport,  wondered whether his own work as a translator could have turned him into a terrorist, as was the case for the  El Hiblu 3.

David Yambio from Refugees in Libya eloquently questioned the actual state of human rights in Mata: “ how is it possible to flee from conditions that do not respect international laws and standards in terms of human rights for a so-called democratic country that itself indulges in such acts?”, he asked.

Amara Kromah, one of the  El Hiblu 3 team, questioned the amalgam between a migrant deprived of everything [editor’s note: rescued from a boat barely clothed, without shoes, without weapons, without food, without care.] and a terrorist.

The humility and resilience of his speech were reflected in the persistent conviction that Malta was ‘one of the best countries’.

On delivering the award to the young men, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, President Emeritus of Malta, apologises to the three youths, asking whether she could have done more. “ I promise you that I will do all my best to work for your freedom”, she said.  

Other speakers were 

  • Marie Naass, Sea Watch

  • Christine Cassar, Moviment Graffitti

  • Nick Morales, Musician (song)

  • Gabriel Schembri with Francesco Frendo, Poet & Musician

  • Katerine Camilleri, Jesuit Refugee Services Malta,

  • Karl Kop of Pro Asyl

These young men, like many others, did not leave their homeland on a whim; they were compelled by a dire necessity to escape conditions that threatened their very existence. This acknowledgment is crucial. It sends a powerful message about the need for greater sensitivity and justice in handling cases involving migrants and refugees.. Their subsequent criminalization raises poignant questions about the intersections of immigration policy, human rights, and international law.

Credit photo: Amnesty International

The El Hiblu 3, not just a pseudonym but a human cause.

It's about Kone Tiemoko Abdul Kader, 16 years old at the time, football passionate from Ivory Coast. He decided to leave his country to Mali, then travelled through the Algerian desert to find unpaid labour in Libya. At this last place, he spent about nine months in prisons working in the fields without being paid. He escaped from there and was given another unpaid  job opportunity , not far from Tripoli by a man who occasionally fed him. It’s that same man who offered to help him travel to Europe on a rickety boat.

Abdalla Bari originally from Guinea, 19 years old, migrated together with his wife, Souwa. He had quit a sociology degree in order to provide for his family, and left for Europe after his father died.

Amara Kromah is also originally from Guinea, he was 15 years old at the time of his migration. He had left his home aged 13 due to a family feud. He crossed the Sahara desert to Libya, where he worked without being paid.  Amara had attended an English-speaking school in Guinea.

The journey began when the trio, fleeing conflict and hoping for a safer life, found themselves aboard an inflatable boat bound for Europe. On  26 th of march 2019 around 5 AM. 

Their deflating and sinking dinghy with the other migrants was spotted off the coast of Libya by a patrol aircraft of the mission EUNAVFOR Med.

The alert message is relayed to the nearest vessel. The El Hiblu 1, whose ship owner was Salah and was being captained by Nadar El-Hiblu, a Libyan man.

Ships in international waters must respect certain principles.

To identify a shipwreck, it is sufficient to note certain objective elements such as visual signs of calls for help, an overloaded boat, the absence of the captain and crew, the absence of navigational instruments, a drifting boat and a deteriorated state of health of the passengers. The sea is «par excellence the place where human solidarity is exercised».

The SAR (Search and Rescue) Convention of 1979 established SAR zones under the control of Coordination and Research Centres at Sea (MCCR), while the UN has, since 1982, established an obligation to provide assistance “to anyone found at risk at sea”. Each coastal state must therefore make every effort in its SAR zones to rescue people in distress.

The State that intervened with migrants in distress in its SAR zone is therefore responsible for finding them a safe port of landing on its coastline or that of a neighbouring State with its agreement. Libya has not created MCCR.

Let us recall that the UN and many alert states on the excesses of Libya as regards respect for human rights and the fate reserved for immigrants in particular (slavery, forced labour, gang rape, unlawful killings etc).

So it’s illegal to push back people in this country.  

According to Abdalla’s testimony, a few hours after the rescue, the captain of El Hiblu came out of his cabin and said that he had received further instructions. There would be two boats coming from Europe; he must reach a meeting point to transfer the migrants  so he can continue his journey. He spoke only in English.  

However, that night,after the rescue, the crew of El Hiblu 1 tried to return the passengers to Libya. In the early hours of the morning, on 27 of march 2019, people spotted the Tripoli coastline and began to protest, terrified by the prospect of being returned to the violence they had experienced in Libya.

The lack of understanding due to the language barrier was palpable.

Confronted with this, according to Amara, identified as the only English speaker by the captain, in a group of over 114 migrants (6 of whom refused to be rescued and remained in the inflatable boat), the latter told him that he didn't have enough fuel to go to Italy, but would take the passengers to Malta instead. He then included Kader and Abdalla in the conversation, so that they could witness the new itinerary and report it to the rest of the migrants. 

In this way, one of the trio acted as translator and the others as mediators between the migrants and the ship's captain.

It should be remembered that, according to the testimonies of the other migrants involved in this misfortune and the observations made, no violence, threats or damage to equipment was committed. The only evidence to the contrary was provided by the ship's captain in a radio communication with the Maltese authorities, in which he stated that his vessel had been hijacked by pirates.

But on 28 March 2019, as they were leaving the ship, the Maltese authorities jailed the three young men on terrorism charges for seven to eight months in the maximum security wing of the adult prison, despite the young age of two of them. They were released on bail on 20 November 2019, but had to report daily to the police and were restricted in their daily movements.

Is there no appropriate treatment for minors? Why was no differentiation made?

How many testimonies, and in what language, were given to outweigh the testimony of just one man, the captain of the ship?

What is the weight of words? Did the ship's captain knowingly talk about hijacking? Did he misinterpret a word intended to describe his change of course? Were the words ‘hijacking’ deliberately chosen to avoid reprisals from his home port, Libya, for helping these migrants?

Having gathered all this information, some grey areas remain. Is the captain of the El Hiblu being prosecuted for attempting to violate international maritime law? Can the tanker continue to operate outside Libyan waters?  Was he aware of the fate of migrants in his country? Is Maltese justice interested in this aspect of the El Hiblu affair ?

 Whatever the case, the prosecutor insists that the three men forced the ship's captain to go to Malta rather than Libya. The prosecutor did not issue the indictment until November 2023. It accuses them of having committed ‘terrorist acts’. Some of these crimes carry a life sentence.

This view seems consistent with policy in 2019, when Malta negotiated an agreement with Libya for the two countries to work together to intercept migrants heading for Maltese waters. Under the agreement, any migrants intercepted would be sent back to Libya, a blatant violation of human rights laws, which prohibit the ‘refoulement’ of people fleeing a country where they fear persecution.[source journalism time of malta - Link here].

Will all these wasted years be compensated one day?

So, many uncertainties and three lives stand-by.

Legal experts and human rights defenders say that the protracted nature of their trials, with prolonged detentions and delays, violates the principles of justice and fairness. It also highlights the psychological consequences for people in such difficult situations, exacerbated by the lack of a familiar support network and the hostility of the host environment.

The case of these three Africans in Malta is a vivid reminder of the challenges faced by many young immigrants around the world who find themselves caught up in legal machinery that refuses to adapt to the nuances of modern migratory flows. It also highlights the essential role of civil society and international bodies in defending the rights of the most vulnerable, often against the odds. 

It’s a  lesson on the human aspects behind the headlines, urging a rethink of policies that shape the fates of so many like these young men, who embark on perilous journeys not out of choice, but necessity.

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