Three teenagers stand accused of hijacking a merchant vessel to get to Malta. They face stiff sentences – even though the case against them still hasn’t been proven. The young men, it seems, have been caught up in a story that is bigger than their own.
“Migrants Capture Merchant Ship – Malta’s Navy Intervenes.” – Die Welt
“Incident Off the Coast of Libya” – SPIEGEL ONLINE
“Tanker, Hijacked by Migrants, Is Escorted to Malta.” – The New York Times.
Headlines from March 28, 2019
It’s a Sunday in late February, almost two years after they took their first steps on European soil in the port of Valletta. They were immediately led away back then, barefoot – three teenagers in handcuffs. They had no idea what they were accused of. They were now suspected terrorists.
On this afternoon, they meet again, sitting in the kitchen of a shared flat in Malta to read letters together. Lamin (*), who is reading, a 17-year-old from Guinea who dreams of Canada and professional football.
Kader, 18, who is also reading, is a young man from the Ivory Coast who collects sneakers and is a fan of Manchester United.
Abdalla, 21, is the oldest of the trio. Back home in Guinea, he used to study sociology at university. He is married and has a six-month old daughter. She was born in Malta.
The three could be facing long prison sentences, with one looking at the potential of life behind bars if convicted. The list of preliminary charges is extensive, with more than 10 altogether, including terrorist acts, unlawfully removing any person to another country and detaining and threatening people with the aim of forcing Malta to take them in.
A pot of chicken and gravy is bubbling on the stove in the kitchen of Kader’s shared apartment. One roommate is cooking, another says hello before jumping into the shower. But the three barely take any notice of them as they continue reading.
“Dear El Hiblu 2 … there is no proof that you have committed a crime … There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, fighting for your freedom on the outside. Greetings, the Herder School.”
Lamin, the 17-year-old, places the card from Germany on the stack in front of him. There are already letters on the table from Japan, England and the United States. They include lines like: “We stand with you, El Hiblu 3” or “Stay strong.” There are hundreds of letters, two big shopping bags full.
El Hiblu 3 is what the outside world calls the trio, so named after the oil tanker El Hiblu 1 that rescued them and around 100 other migrants from an inflatable dinghy on the high seas between Libya and Malta. The teens hadn’t even known each other before then. There story, though, stands for something much larger, as they are well aware.
Some see it as a story about Europe walling itself in, criminalizing refugees and disregarding human rights. Others see it as the story of a Europe under threat. They view the trio as criminals for allegedly forcing the captain to take them to Malta instead of back to Libya. Others view them as heroes for the very same reason. They say they saved more than 100 people, including children, from being returned to a country where they might have faced torture, rape, slavery and death.
“Look at us,” says Abdalla, the oldest of them. “How are we supposed to be terrorists? We had nothing on us and we were adrift in a sinking rubber boat.” He peers down, a young man in flip-flops. Terrorists, he says, look different. He says he’s seen people like that on TV, on the news and in action movies. “Terrorists have weapons.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged Malta to reconsider the charges against the three. Meanwhile, aid organizations banded together to raise money for their bail, and Amnesty International launched “the world’s biggest human rights campaign” in 2020 and a massive letter-writing campaign.
The three young men in Malta read each of the incoming letters, always in turn, and always on Sundays. They say doing so quiets the voices in their heads. Voices saying they could spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Air was leaking from the inflatable boat. Lamin could feel it as soon as he touched the rubber. This was not a boat that would take them all the way to Europe. But there was no going back. Libya had been hell, he had run out of money, the men on the shore were armed, and this was already his second attempt. Lamin was 15 years old at the time.
It was March 26, 2019. The Libyan smugglers crammed them onto the boat together, all 108 of them. Lamin crouched in the bow, where the women and children sat. They headed north in the darkness. It didn’t take long before his feet were submerged.
Lamin is sitting in a café above the port of Valletta, just a few hundred meters as the crow flies from where he was arrested two years ago. He’s smaller than the other two, quieter as well. He says he rarely goes to cafés and public places. He barely goes out at all. He says he’s afraid of the people of Malta.
Lamin often jumps back and forth when he explains things – between Libya, the Mediterranean and Malta, between the past and the present. Probably in part because there has been no conclusion yet – no verdict. The authorities have been collecting evidence in the case The Police vs. Abdalla B., K. T. A. Kader and Lamin H. for the past two years. They have appeared in court repeatedly, and have usually been sent away again, with the announcement: “hearing postponed.” They haven’t been allowed to testify yet. When he finally gets his chance, Lamin says he would like to ask the court a question: “If you had been in my shoes, what would you have done?” He recalls how the sea grew rougher during the morning hours. Lamin was freezing, hungry and he could hear the crying of the others. At one point, they saw a plane circling over their heads.
The plane was part of “Operation Sophia,” the European Union mission to rescue those needing help at sea and combat smuggling, in which Germany’s military had also long participated. But they had no way of knowing that. The same day, the EU pretty much halted all ship patrols because of the dispute with Italy over allowing refugees in. Reconnaissance flights were all that was left. At the same time, Italy’s then Interior Minister Matteo Salvini blocked civilian sea rescues. There was now practically no help available at sea at all. But on that March 26, an oil tanker happened to be nearby. It was enroute from Istanbul to Tripoli, 52 meters long, with six crew members on board. The vessel sailed under the flag of Palau.
“Sir, there are lives at sea, can you assist them?” Operation Sophia radioed to the captain of the Hiblu. Lamin caught sight of a red ship a short time later. Once they were close enough, the crew of the Hiblu lowered ladders and ropes. Lamin says the captain was filming on his mobile phone the whole time.
“What if that’s a Libyan ship? Where are they going?” the people on the dinghy wondered. The dinghy hung limply on the waves. They had no choice. But a few decided to stay onboard anyway. Apparently they didn’t trust the Hiblu. They turned away, and soon the dinghy had disappeared over the horizon.
“Do any of you speak English,” the Hiblu’s first mate asked, that’s how it started. Lamin answered affirmatively. He speaks English, French and Mandinka. He had attended an English-language school in Guinea. He says he loves languages and that translation is his passion. Today, he sometimes wishes he had just kept his mouth shut.
Since his release on bail, Lamin has been living in a home for underage immigrants. He has found a job, working 10 hours a day at a construction site. After that, he holes up in his room. He cooks lunch to take with him to work, watches movies, listens to music by Ed Sheeran or Whitney Houston and then waits for the next morning. “I don’t want any trouble,” he says. “If something happened outside, they would blame me again.” The only other things he does is go to football for refugees on Saturdays and to Kader’s place on Sundays to read the letters.
“Greetings from a retired English scientist aged 88. Because England is an island, we have many beautiful places near the sea and I hope you like this card. I stand with El Hiblu 3, hope you will soon be free, and enjoy your football.” – A Letter from Britain
Lamin was 13 when he set out. His family is from Nzérékoré, a large city in southern Guinea. He took off toward Mali with his mother’s savings. He had heard that you could earn money as a boy at the gold mines on the border.
“I was a kid, I didn’t know anything,” he says. The work in the mines was too hard for a 13-year-old, so he continued onward to Bamako, the capital of Mali. He met a man there who let him sleep in his minivan. The man told him he would have to go to Algeria if he wanted to make money. Lamin then paid the first smuggler.
Later, in the desert, Lamin says he had to grow up, that he saw that people are dying there. He saw bones in the sand, backpacks left behind, clothes. He speaks explains this like a dark dream, in a calm voice – and he remains so focused that he forgets to drink until the ice cubes have melted in his orange juice.
He found work as a cleaner in Algiers. He would have liked to stay, he says, but then the Algerians began hunting down people like him. Armed men combed the city for migrants, arrested them and abandoned them in the middle of the desert on the border with Niger. The Algerians called it “repatriation.” Many get lost and die. He fled.
Armed men were waiting at the border to Libya. Lamin recalls how he had to stand in line and undress. The men searched everyone for any valuables or money. “They even searched your anus,” he says. He also saw them rape women.
They took his mobile phone. But they didn’t find the 420 euros he had saved, which he managed to slip it into the hem of his jacket. He used it to pay for his place on the dinghy. It was his first attempt.
A short time later, Lamin found himself sitting in a camp in Al-Khums in a locked room with around 200 or 300 people. The only water available was from the tank of the toilet. The Libyan coast guard had intercepted the rubber dinghy and shot holes in it. The guards in the camp would hit them, and at night, he could hear women screaming. He only escaped through a bit of happenstance.
“It is hard to understand how you were so unlucky to be in the position you are in. (…) I sincerely hope you are soon free as you should be. (…) Penny Young” – Letter from Canada
“Grants bail … on the following conditions …: 3. That he (Eds: the defendant) does not leave or attempt to leave these Islands … that he does not get on board any boat, yacht, ship or other any other means of transport by sea or by air …
- That at all times, he is to keep at least 50 meters inland from the foreshore as well as any seaport, airfield or airport in the Maltese Islands.
- That he reports … at the police station daily between 08:00 and 20:00.”
Conditions ordered by the court in November 2019
It’s a Friday morning in February, and Kone Tiemoko Abdul Kader – who some of his friends call Kone and others Kader – makes his way to the police station in Paolo, a small town a few kilometers south of Valletta.
He wears colorful Nike sneakers and has pulled his hair into a bun with a rubber band in a way that makes him look 20 centimeters taller than he really is. He likes energy drinks and plays songs by Wizkid, his favorite Nigerian musician. Then he sings along: “Thanking God for life.”
You could be forgiven for thinking he was an ordinary teenager if it weren’t for some of the things he says. “I have one foot in prison,” he says, and that feeling is always there.
Unlike Lamin, Kader is always on the move, which is the only way he can stand his life in Malta. He’s usually on the bus when you call him. On this morning, too, he was on the road early after getting up at 4 a.m. and heading out to Marsa, to the large intersection where migrants gather to wait for work.
He stood there next to a sign that said “Tow Zone,” with the cement-gray morning sky above him. Every few meters, boys and men could be seen squatting who were looking for the same thing he was: For a few euros an hour, they allow strangers to drive them in vans and cart them to constructions sites.
The employers often disappear at the end of the day without paying, says Kader. A few months ago, he says, he broke his leg after falling from the third floor of some scaffolding. He was never paid for that day’s work.
It was the same in Libya, he says. There were intersections there, too, where day laborers waited for work, and there, too, they didn’t know anything about the person whose car they were getting into. Kader tells the story of him and a boy from Mali being picked up by a landowner in Tripoli. The man drove them out to his fields, where he had them and other migrants work away in the heat. He would lock them up at night. They worked like slaves for several months, and sometimes, they would even be loaned out to others.
“Everyone has their own story from Libya,” says Kader. “Just imagine somebody wanting to return you to such a country.”
Amnesty International and numerous other organizations have been insisting for years that it is a violation of human rights to return refugees to Libya. According to international maritime law, ship captains must bring those they have rescued to a safe place. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR): “Ensuring the safety and dignity of those rescued … must be the overriding consideration in determining the point of disembarkation.”
“Where are you taking us,” the migrants on board the Hiblu demanded to know from the first mate. The man responded that he was waiting for instructions from the airplane. Lamin translated.
Over the radio, Operation Sophia told the Hiblu that help would be sent and that ship would come to pick up the migrants. Operation Sophia cooperates with the Libyan Coast Guard, but the migrants were unaware of that. The first mate, they recall, swore on the Koran that they would be taken to Europe.
The Hiblu waited. Night fell, but the waiting continued – for six hours. No ship showed up. Suddenly, the engines fired up, Kader says, and the ship began moving at high speed.
At around 5 or 6 a.m., they saw lights. Was it Europe? Cheers of joy erupted. “Europe!” the people cried out. “I was so happy,” says Kader. Until he was able to make out the first buildings. “Medina,” someone called out, the old town of Tripoli. Mobile phones began getting reception from the Libyan network. The crew had shut themselves into the cabin.
It’s only a few hundred meters from Kader’s shared apartment to the Paola police station. He had no luck finding work today and now he is walking up the hill to the station. It is housed in a building belonging to the Corradino Correctional Facility, Malta’s largest prison, an imposing 18th century structure with thick, sand-colored walls that presides over Paola like a fortress.
These are the same walls behind which Kader could disappear if he is found guilty. He literally lives in their shadow, walking by them whenever he wants to take the bus, go shopping or go to work.
He climbs the stairs to the police station, nods at the policeman behind the wooden counter and says “128,” his parole number. The police behind the counter enters the number. It takes almost no time at all, but this daily visit to the police station has changed him, says Kader. He can feel that people are looking at him like a criminal, he says.
“I’ve already been inside,” he says, pointing to the green gate. On their third day in Malta, the court transferred them to Corradino from police custody – to the high-security unit. “Division 6,” says Kader,” the worst unit of all.” He was 16 years old, but he was locked up in a cell with an older Maltese man. Maybe a murderer? Or a rapist? Kader says he doesn’t know, and didn’t ask. He rolled himself up on his bunk and thought his life was over.
He only gained a better understanding of the crime he allegedly committed when he and Lamin were transferred again 10 days later to a youth detention center, where they would spend the next eight months. While there, they saw images of the Hiblu on television. The other prisoners started calling him and Lamin “captain.”
Kader says he had trouble sleeping at night in his cell, with frightening thoughts coursing through his mind. Only when he and Lamin were united in a cell did the nights improve, he says. They were able to look out for each other.
You have to consider the context if you want to understand the severity of the charges, says Neil Falzon, the trio’s lawyer. Over Zoom, he says that Kader, Lamin and Abdalla accidentally stumbled into something much larger than themselves – a political storm. A storm of EU migration policy and Malta’s treatment of migrants.
When the first boats started arriving in 2002, Falzon says, Malta wasn’t even a member of the EU. It was just an isolated island, and it was extremely homogenous in terms of the ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of the populace. Many Maltese felt their identities were threatened by the new arrivals, he says, and that has informed the country’s response ever since. “Like a very small island under siege, under attack.”
The government reacted with measures aimed at deterrence, including the aggressive use of detention and a not very welcoming reception, Falzon says. There is, he continues, a lot of discrimination and racism in Malta, combined with substandard reception and very little effort at integration. Furthermore, he says, Malta wanted to show the EU that it was erecting a strong wall against the “invaders.” That was the environment into which the three arrived.
It hasn’t yet been officially documented what precisely happened in the decisive minutes on board the ship. But there are witness accounts from those who were on board. And there is a radio transcript.
It indicates that the migrants on board the Hiblu panicked. They started to protest loudly as soon as they saw the Libyan coast. “No Libya,” they yelled. Some threatened to jump into the sea. Others started pounding on the windows of the cabin into which the crew had retreated. Some allegedly picked up objects and began pounding on the ship.
At some point, the first mate opened the cabin and told them to calm down. “Where is the boy who can speak English?” he allegedly called out. He wanted Lamin to come into the cabin with them.
At first, Lamin says, he didn’t want to go inside. The other migrants were berating him and calling him a liar because he had translated the promise that the migrants would be brought to Europe. Lamin says he just squatted there and started crying. Kader and Abdalla tried to calm the others down, and they finally accompanied Lamin into the cabin. In part because they didn’t trust the first mate. After all, he had already lied to them.
Lamin, he says, went down on his knees before the crew and started begging. He tried to convince them with words. He cried. He pointed to the women and children and asked how they were supposed to survive another stint in Libya.
The first mate, he says, told them that he had changed course and would now bring them to Malta. “It was his decision, only his,” the three say. Maybe he felt sorry for us, says Lamin. Likely, though, it was mostly a result of what they saw outside the cabin. It’s not hard to imagine what it must feel like as a crew of six to be facing 108 desperate, starving people.
Kader says that he had never even heard of Malta before this moment. After all, they all wanted to go to Italy. He says he asked: “Malta, where is that? Is that Europe?” They pulled out the map, he says, and showed them.
The crew asked them to stay in the cabin, as witnesses and mediators. Things then proceeded more peacefully, he says. They even dozed off for a time, he says, and one of the crew members gave them some peanuts. Shortly before they reached Malta, the Maltese Armed Forces (AFM) radioed the ship, with the exchange later finding its way into media reports.
AFM: “El Hiblu 1, this is Maltese patrol vessel Papa 21. You are still proceeding towards the Maltese islands at a constant speed. You have already been given instructions to not continue entering Maltese territorial waters. Please stop your vessel.”
El Hiblu: “OK sir, but the migrants. My vessel not under command now.”
Then, Lamin’s voice can be heard. He says: “Good morning, sir. Good morning. I am one of the migrants.”
AFM: “Good morning.”
Lamin: “Please, listen to me carefully. We are not proceeding – the ship to go to Malta. But the situation is very bad. We have children, 12 children. They are not even talking anymore. Three days now, no food or water. Please. We are not allowed to go back. Please. Three days now, we do not have food. We are 19 women, 12 children. Please help us.”
AFM: “Copy that, sir.”
The ship’s first mate again took the radio. “We have already stopped, captain. Already stopped. My engine is stopped now.”
In response to a question, he spoke of injured crew members. But in court, he withdrew that claim. In a later interview with the magazine Vice, one of the crew members, an engineer, said: “They aren’t terrorists, just refugees.”
When asked why the charges are so severe and why these three specifically were singled out, the plaintiff – the Maltese police – declined to answer, referring merely to the ongoing court proceedings.
“Dear Gentlemen, Hello from far away. (…) Each language one speaks give one more power. Like flying, or becoming invisible, having the ability to speak multiple languages is a SUPERPOWER! When you used your language skills on El Hiblu, you were acting to help yourselves and others. You are heroes.” – Letter from the U.S.
On a Thursday in early March, Abdalla, Kader and Lamin entered the courthouse in Valletta wearing suits and ties. For the first time in two years, the court was to hear testimony from a witness who had been with the migrants. They had been waiting a long time for this day.
The woman testified that she had been nine-months pregnant at the time, that those on the ship had succumbed to desperation and that everyone had started crying and screaming when they saw that the ship was bringing them back to Libya. The crew, she said, had locked themselves into the cabin.
At some point, she testified, the captain had opened the cabin door to speak with them. The men spoke, she said, but she doesn’t know what was discussed. After that, the captain said they should all calm down – and then he took them to Malta.
She said she doesn’t know exactly what the accused allegedly did.
After the hearing, Lamin said he felt both happiness and fear – happiness because they had finally summoned the witness and there was now a chance that things could be cleared up. Fear, because he had the feeling that the court had sought to pressure the witness.
If you ask Abdalla, the oldest of the three, what this case has done with his life, he says he feels like a ball that is being kicked by somebody else. “I don’t have any control.”
He says he no longer talks with his wife about the case. She was with him in Libya and she was on the boat with him. They named their daughter after a German woman who works for the aid organization Sea Watch and who provided them with support. Jelka. Sometimes, he says, he looks at Jelka and grows incredibly sad. He imagines what would become of his family if he had to return to Corradino, to prison.
On a Saturday afternoon a few days before the court hearing, the El Hiblu 3 met up on a soccer field. Every Saturday, there is a training session for young refugees and migrants, financed by the EU, the trainer says. The same Europe that has cost them their freedom now gives them polyester jerseys. Lamin wears No. 9. On his breast are stick figures with light and dark skin holding hands – next to the blue flag of the European Union.
Lamin jogs onto the field. He defends. Abdalla joins the strikers. They run across the turf, laughing, and cursing. Kader, who can no longer play since falling from the scaffolding at a Maltese construction site, stands on the sideline cheering them on. They look free, as though they have no worries. They look like teenagers.
*Name has been changed.