The United Nations’ human rights office has called on Malta to drop the “exaggerated” terrorism charges against three African teenage migrants arrested for hijacking El Hiblu, a small commercial tanker.
The three, who have pleaded not guilty to the charges, reportedly hijacked the vessel in an attempt to avoid returning to Libya. At the time, ‘El Hiblu’ was carrying 108 migrants rescued off the Libyan coast.
The teenagers (one from Ivory Coast and two from Guinea) were arrested on March 28 and are due to appear in court on May 20. They are aged 15, 16 and 19. If found guilty they could face life in prison.
At a press conference, UN spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani expressed the body’s deep concern over the severity of the charges.
“Even though two of them are minors, all three of the accused were held in the high-security division of an adult prison after the authorities reportedly interrogated them without being appointed legal guardians or placed in the care of independent child protection officials, responsible for ensuring their best interests.”
“Once again, we urge the European Union and its Member States to implement a common, human rights-based response to maritime migration from Libya,” she continued.
“States need to ensure sufficient search and rescue resources in the Mediterranean Sea and to guarantee that non-governmental search and rescue organisations can perform their life-saving activities without being criminalised.”
“States must ensure that all rescued migrants can disembark swiftly in a port of safety where their rights are respected and make it clear that no returns should take place directly or indirectly to Libya,” Shamdasani said.
She also highlighted EU member states’ insistence to continue to claim that Libya is a safe port of disembarkation for asylum seekers
“A State’s forcible return of migrants who were rescued at sea to Libya violates the core legal principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returns where there are substantial grounds for believing that a person would be at risk of serious human rights violations or other irreparable harm.”
The UNHCR, which has made 217 visits to disembarkation centres in 2019, believes that the country did not meet the criteria of safety even before war erupted, due to substandard conditions and reports of severe abuses against asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants.
Shamdasni also referred to the remaining 105 migrants who arrived in Malta on the vessel whom she said were “dehydrated and exhibited clear signs of torture and ill-treatment.”
“It is unclear whether they remain in the Initial Reception Centre, where most of them were being held initially. We urge the Maltese authorities to ensure the proper care and protection of these individuals, including by releasing them to non-custodial Open Centres where their vulnerabilities and protection needs can be best assessed,” she concluded.
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