El Hiblu 1: ‘Age assessment confirmed two of the accused are minors’

REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

The age of two of the three youths accused in the El Hiblu 1 case has been confirmed, human rights lawyer and defence lawyer Neil Falzon told the court on Thursday. Two of the three accused with terrorist charges which carry a sentence of seven years to lifetime imprisonment are aged 15 and 16-years-old while the other accused is age 19. For some days the minors were held in a high security unit as opposed to being held at Centre of Residential Restorative Services (CoRRS) in Imtaħleb. Newsbook.com.mt had contacted the Commissioner for Children who said that they were closely following the case as well as urged for the age assessment to be carried out as soon as possible. 

READ: Commissioner for Children inquires about minors in El Hiblu 1 case

READ: Two teens charged in El Hiblu 1 case held at Paola prison; ‘Special protection needs totally ignored’ – lawyers

During the hearing, both the prosecution and the defence lawyers made their submissions in a court presided over by Magistrate Aaron Bugeja.

Police Inspector Omar Zammit argued that the six crew members that took the witness stand were consistent in their version of facts, arguing that this pointed at the guilt of the accused. He referred to the testimonies given by the AFM officers and the crew members of El Hiblu 1. Officers from the Armed Forces of Malta and the crew members took the witness stand on Tuesday and Wednesday, testifying in the compilation of evidence against the three youths. 

READ: “Please, please we cannot go back” – El Hiblu 1 hearing

In his submissions Inspector Zammit quoted the AFM official saying that the vessel lacked the necessary authorisation to proceed into Maltese waters. He also referred to what each crew member said about the youths accused of terrorist activities, that they left the bridge moments before the soldiers boarded the ship in Maltese territorial waters. 

READ: “El Hiblu 1 incident very much the result of European border policies”

Zammit argued that the three youths were the ‘front men’ representing migrants on board the ship, who were rescued by the crew of El Hiblu 1.

The police inspector argued as well that the arguments brought forward by the defence counsel about the situation in Libya ‘were not a justification’, he then continued on by saying ‘with all due respect this is like saying that when my child is sick, I go to steal to help my child’.

Defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud then made his submissions on each of the charge brought against the three youths.

Mifsud argued that from the evidence produced he could not see how the youths were going to seriously damage the country. He referred to the evidence given in court by the AFM officer of when  the captain of the vessel was instructed to stop 1nm outside of territorial waters, saying that the captain or rather the chief officer who became the de facto captain took orders from the Maltese authorities.

Mifsud argued that the Maltese authorities allowed the vessel to proceed 3nm into Maltese territorial water, with Inspector Zammit contesting this, saying that the vessel was only allowed to proceed if the captain was not in command.

Mifsud further argue that the Captain who claimed he had no control over his vessel 1nm outside of Maltese territorial water suddenly regained control inside territorial water, remarking that there was no magic there.

Referring to the charge on extensive damage, Mifsud referred to the replies given by the witnesses when asked whether the migrants had broken the glass of the ship, to which all replied no. Mifsud underlined that one of the accused is merely a 15-year-old facing a possible lifetime imprisonment.

The defence referred to the initial charge with which the youth were arraigned, that of terrorist activities. This stirred discussion in the courtroom with the Magistrate taking over and reading out the law, he then turned to the prosecution, saying that he was interested in how the prosecuting officers were interpreting the law.

The prosecution said that it viewed terrorist activities as an umbrella which includes acts of terrorism, a charge that carries a punishment of 7 years to lifetime imprisonment, arguing that all with acts of terrorism.

Defence lawyer Neil Falzon argued that the law quoted simply defines them and does not put them at par or equivalent, arguing that therefore the arguments at prima facie do not stand.

One of the youths accused in El Hiblu 1 case felt unwell during the submissions, with Magistrate Aaron Bugeja asking the prison officers to help him lie down on the bench at the back of the courtroom. The youth was taken out and later returned still looking unwell.

The defence counsel put forward their arguments on why the youths did not detain the crew, saying that when the Armed Forces of Malta asked the crew to stop the vessel, they did so, as well as reiterated that the AFM told the Captain to enter Maltese territorial waters.

The defence also spoke of the crew’s movement on the vessel, saying that they could leave the cabin voluntarily. Mifsud remarked that the reality is that the crew could not handle the situation and that they should have stated so. Neil Falzon interjected saying that the prosecution did not bring sufficient evidence that the three accused had detained the crew.

The magistrate interjected asking whether one should take into account the psychological aspects of the crew.

Another charge dealt with forcibly removing a person from Malta, Mifsud argued that from the prima facie evidence this did not result in Malta.

Other arguments brought against the charges included the fact that the alleged acts did not take place in what would fall under Maltese jurisdiction, referring to the what the captain had said during the sitting on Wednesday when he said that close to Malta the situation on the vessel was calm.

The defence argued that four of the charges brought against the accused were a matter of jurisdiction.

The prosecution argued that the crew was forced to do something which was tantamount to something illegal.

Magistrate Aaron Bugeja underlined that if he finds sufficient evidence to indict the three accused, then he could not distinguish between which of the charges he has found sufficient evidence for. He stressed that he could not say in relation to which offence he has found, in order to avoid prejudice.

Human rights lawyer and defence counsel Neil Falzon told the court that the age assessment confirmed that two of the youths happen to be indeed minors and therefore a care order needs to be issued.

Magistrate Aaron Bugeja will issue his decree on Monday. 

Police Inspector Omar Zammit prosecuted, while lawyers Cedric Mifsud, Neil Falzon and Gianluca Cappitta appeared for the three youths accused.