Damages sought as Eritrean deems Malta responsible for brother’s death at sea

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

An Eritrean refugee is seeking damages from the Maltese authorities, deeming them to be responsible for the death of his brother in Malta’s search-and-rescue area.

In a judicial letter Fthawi Tesfamichael Welday said that his brother Mogos Tesfamichael Welday was among those who died over the Easter weekend, with the survivors in his group taken back to war-torn Libya on the Mae Yemanja, a Maltese-owned fishing vessel flying the Libyan flag which had left from Malta to intercept the vessel.

The case had been cause for great controversy in Malta, leading to civil society NGO Repubblika to file criminal complaints against Prime Minister Robert Abela, AFM commander Jeffrey Curmi and the crew of patrol boat P52 on 16 April – the complaint against the crew was subsequently withdrawn. The NGO demanded that the police should investigate whether Abela and Curmi were responsible for the migrants’ deaths.

Abela said that he was serene in a press conference the following day, but nevertheless treated the complaint as an affront, claiming that there were some who wanted him to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

 “Id-dgħajsa kellha l-obbligu li ssegwi l-istruzzjonijiet tal-Istat Malti”

In the judicial letter, signed by lawyers Paul Borg Olivier and Evelyn Borg Costanzi, Tesfamichael Welday argued that the Mae Yemanja was acting on behalf of the Maltese authorities, to assist a group of asylum seekers in difficulty. The government claimed that this was necessary because its resources were all being utilised.

Abela had said, during the press conference and in Court testimony, that on Easter Sunday, the AFM was involved in five separate rescue efforts, and that all its patrol boats and aircraft had been deployed.

Tesfamichael Welday’s lawyers argued that since the Mae Yemanja was obliged to follow the instructions given by the Maltese authorities, the argument that it had to return to its home port of Tripoli was not justified. Such an action went against Malta’s international obligations: it is a crime under international law to return asylum seekers to a country where they are likely to face persecution.

Consequently, the lawyers said, the death of their client’s brother was a direct consequence of the Maltese authorities’ actions, and their failure to honour their international obligations.

The victim, the letter continues, had a valid reason to seek asylum, but was denied this right by the Maltese government, in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Malta was also in violation of other international obligations, including the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Geneva Convention.