Three young people are facing terrorism charges in Malta for refusing to be returned to almost certain detention and abuse in Libya. The “El Hiblu 3,” as they are known, appeared in a preliminary court hearing in Valetta on July 30; their trial is yet to begin.
The youths, from Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, were arrested in March 2019 after they were rescued from a rubber boat in distress in the Mediterranean. At that time they were aged 15, 16, and 19. They are accused of hijacking the El Hiblu 1, the merchant vessel that rescued them and 105 other migrants, and forcing the crew to take them to Malta instead of returning them to Libya. Amnesty International notes that the charges are “disproportionate … and do not reflect the risks to their lives they would have faced if returned to Libya.” Amnesty International also said that there is no evidence of any violence against the ship’s crew.
Human Rights Watch has long investigated the hellish conditions in Libya’s migrant detention centers. Torture and rape are common, as are malnutrition and lack of health care. Even killings have been reported. Migrants may be detained indefinitely or held captive by smugglers for ransom. Children as well as adults are subject to serious abuse. The ongoing war in Libya adds to the suffering, with an attack on a detention center killing dozens and reports of migrants being forced to work for armed groups.
Those who try to escape fare no better. In July, Libyan authorities killed three people and wounded two more as they tried to flee after being apprehended at sea and returned to Libya.
The European Union and its member states should urgently reconsider their cooperation with and support to the Libyan Coast Guard. In May, Malta signed a cooperation agreement with Libya to counter irregular migration, and in July, Italy also renewed its support. Nongovernmental groups like Alarm Phone have documented at least seven cases since mid-March in which Italian and Maltese authorities appear to have delayed rescue operations at sea.
All vessels, including commercial ones like El Hiblu 1, have a duty under international law to rescue those in danger at sea and should be allowed to ensure that everyone they rescue is disembarked only at a safe port, not returned to danger. And no one should be labeled a terrorist for trying to avoid being returned to a brutal fate in Libya.