El Hiblu: Prison authorities not allowing interpreters provided by defence

The merchant ship Elhiblu 1 arrives in Senglea in Valletta's Grand Harbour, Malta, March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Prison authorities have denied entry to interpreters who accompanied the defence lawyers on visits to the three teenagers who are charged over the alleged seizure of a merchant vessel, and are currently held in custody, a court was told.

Lawyers appearing for three teenagers charged over the El Hiblu 1 incident will be filing a request to be able to visit their clients accompanied by trusted interpreters in front of the court. Interpreters are essential for the defence to prepare the case.

In court it emerged that the defence has faced resistance when visiting their clients, with the prison authorities asking for court appointed interpreters rather than interpreters of their choice.

Three teenagers aged 15, 16 and 19 are charged with terrorism charges over the alleged seizure of the merchant vessel El Hiblu 1 in March 2019. The merchant vessel had conducted a rescue operation after it was contacted by a plane.

The prison authorities are reportedly worried that the interpreters might be journalists, the defence told the court. The claim was immediately dismissed, with the lawyers affirming that they are preparing their clients’ defence.

During the sitting on Thursday, two AFM officers took the witness stand. Police Inspector Crista Armeni also testified. Tools which the migrants allegedly used to bang against the merchant vessel were also exhibited. During cross examination lawyer Malcolm Mifsud asked how the tools were preserved. The police told the court that the crew had picked up the rusty tool when the AFM was on board. No finger prints were taken.

The court was presided over by Magistrate Nadine Lia.

Police Inspector Crista Armeni led the prosecution.

Lawyers Neil Falzon, Malcolm Mifsud, Cedric Mifsud and Gianluca Cappitta appeared as defence counsel.

The case has been adjourned to 24 October.

10:22 Lawyer Cedric Mifsud informed the court that a request for bail has been filed. An issue has arisen in relation to access to their clients. The defence told the court that the prison authorities have shown resistance to lawyers meeting their clients accompanied by interpreters of their choice. The prison authorities have asked for a court interpreter. However, could not provide the defence with the legal basis for such request.

An application will be filed by the defence requesting French interpreters of trust to the defence and the accused during visits in prison.

The prison authorities have apparently asked “What if the interpreters are journalists?” with the defence saying that they need to prepare a defence and not bring in journalists.

The defence has formally asked the prosecution to declare whether they are to produce 50 or so migrants which were on board the vessel El Hiblu 1 on the day of the incident. The prosecution will check internally and will eventually inform the court.

Case adjourned to 24 October at 9am.

10:14 During cross the examination, Police Inspector Crista Armeni said that some of the tools might have been thrown overboard.

The court stopped the defence from asking about the marks allegedly made by the migrants when they were banging against ship on the vessel given that she was not there.

She added that the ship was recently refurbished. Mifsud asked “how can you state that the marks where originally by those tools?”

Police Inspector Armeni said that there where “rust marks on all sides” on the metal part of cabin. She added that photos were taken but she did not bring them to court. The police inspector was only on board once to collect the tools.

She clarified that she was only present for some time when two of the accused were giving their statement to the police.

Lawyer Malcolm Mifsud asked how were the tools preserved. She explained that the crew touched the tools and picked them up when AFM arrived.

10:08 Police Inspector Crista Armeni took the witness stand. She is stationed at the counter terrorism unit.

She explained that she was present during the El Hiblu 1′ captain and chief officer’s interviews and that of two of the accused.

She is testifying on the statements the captain and chief officer gave to the police. Police Inspector Armeni said that a plane informed the crew of a boat in distress. She recounted that the crew then proceeded to Libya which was their destination, however, the migrants on realising that they were close to Libya some 20-25 migrants took tools and started banging against the vessel.

Police Inspector recognised two of the accused. She said that during their police interview one of them told the police that “they did not need to be rescued” and “they would rather die in the Mediterranean Sea than go to Libya.”

She exhibited the tools which she personally picked up from the ship.

The metal rods and other tools were brought in four big plastic bags. She explained that these were shown to her by the Captain, Chief Officer and the rest of the crew.

10:02 During the cross examination the AFM captain explained that the El Hiblu 1 was surveyed from both sides. They boarded from a point where they could not be seen. He added that at the point they boarded the vessel there were no migrants on the bridge.

“There was no resistance whatsoever,” the Captain reiterated.

The AFM captain clarified that there was a rendezvous point at 12.5nm with the other AFM vessel.

09:45 An AFM captain who was a boarding officer took the witness stand. He is stationed at the HQ. He explained that once the decision was taken that the vessel was going to be allowed to harbour, he had to make sure that the master of the vessel was in complete control.

Police Inspector Armeni asked about the operation.

The Captain explained that El Hiblu was boarded in two stages, the first RHIB boarded and provided immediate security. The second RHIB on which he was, boarded the merchant vessel and went to the bridge. When they entered the bridge they tried to speak to El Hiblu 1’s captain, however his English was very poor. He told the court that the Chief Officer was a Libyan national and could converse fluently in English.

The previous witness would give order to the boarding officer.

He explained that the pre-boarding questions relate to the nationality of the crew, the nationality of the people, questions on any injuries, etc.

In cross examination, Mifsud asked what did the master reply to the questions regarding injuries. The captain said that the El Hiblu 1 captain replied negatively. He added that he could not tell if there was a threat or otherwise, but this could not be seen until they boarded.

The boarding officer said that the people on board had followed the instructions.

“There were no situations on board when we went on board,” the AFM captain said, stressing that “No situation whatsoever neither from the crew nor from the migrants.”

Explaining what is on the logbook, the boarding officer said that the greenlight arrived at 0:5:20. The boarding happened at 0:5:30 while the boarding officer was on the bridge at 0:5:32.

Asked by Dr Cedric Mifsud whether he found any damage on the El Hiblu 1, the captain said there was a broken coffee table. He said that he was shown a metal rod which the migrants used to bang against the ship.

The AFM boarding officer told the court that there was no need to restrain anyone since no one resisted. He added that “it would have been provocative” to restrain anyone remarking that they were also outnumbered on the El Hiblu 1.

The AFM official told the court that the El Hiblu 1 Captain said that four individuals were constantly on the bridge. He added that from what he was told, they were part of a bigger group of individuals.

He spoke to the captain and chief officer separately outside the bridge. He highlighted that there were difficulties when trying to communicate with the Turkish captain.

09:40 Lawyer Cedric Mifsud continues with the cross examination of the witness. He is now asking if he was aware of any hostages on board or if he saw any bombings, shootings, throwing of objects, etc. The AFM official said “No, we didn’t see any of this.”

He explained that at their disembarkation no one was handcuffed. AFM official added that to handcuff someone, the person had to disobey orders. He added that they escorted everyone, including the crew off the vessel.

Lawyer Cedric Mifsud asked for the logbook to be exhibited.

The logbook was subsequently exhibited.

09:30 An AFM official took witness to the stand. He was the on scene commander of the vessel assets on site. He was part of the operation which intercepted El Hiblu 1. He told the court that some 12.5nm away from Malta the AFM HQ ordered that the AFM boards the vessel and brought it under its control.

Police Inspector Armeni asked “how was the feeling?”, the defence objected. Objections were accepted by the court.

During cross examination, the AFM official said that they had a rendezvous point at 12.5nm (0.5nm outside of Maltese territorial waters) to meet another AFM vessel.

He explained that the AFM HQ gave them the order to speak to the vessel.

Lawyer Cedric Mifsud asked about AFM’s understanding of “interception”. The AFM official explained interception means that the vessel corresponds to the description and should be in the location for boarding.

The El Hiblu 1 was making way to the 12.5nm as it was intercepted from another AFM vessel before 12.5nm.

Lawyer Malcolm Mifsud asked about at what point was he given the order to board the El Hiblu 1. The AFM official said he received orders to do a verbal challenge and pre-boarding questions to the merchant vessel. This would make way for boarding.

When asked if he was told or if he asked if there was anyone injured, the AFM official replied that he did not ask and does not remember the master of his vessel asking the question. Adding that there was no emergency from what he could remember.

The AFM official was the on scene commander coordinating the operation but he did not board the vessel.

The compilation of evidence continued on Thursday. Three teenagers have been accused with terrorism charges over the El Hiblu 1 incident. The merchant vessel had rescued a group of asylum seekers who had found themselves in distress. The three youths, ages 15, 16 and 19, are accused of forcefully taking over the merchant vessel to redirect it to Malta.

Police Inspector Crista Armeni led the prosecution.

Lawyers Neil Falzon, Cedric Mifsud and Gianluca Cappitta appeared for the three teenagers.

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