The El Hiblu 3 with their backs toward the camera.

Malta: Authorities must not make El Hiblu 3 ‘scapegoats for Europe’s search and rescue failures’

Ahead of the preliminary hearing of the ‘El Hiblu 3’ on 30 May in Malta, where three young men from West Africa face life imprisonment for attempting to stop their illegal return to Libya by the captain of the ship that rescued them at sea, Elisa De Pieri, Amnesty International’s Regional Researcher, said:

“We repeat our call for the Maltese authorities to drop this case and all charges against the young men, two of whom were children at the time of their arrest. It’s taken the authorities five years to bring this case to court, against three teenagers who acted as mediators between the El Hiblu crew and over 100 rescued people, terrified by the prospect of being illegally returned to Libya. The authorities must not make the El Hiblu 3 scapegoats for Europe’s search and rescue failures.

“Ship captains have a duty to rescue people in danger at sea and take them to a safe destination. Libya is not a safe destination – human rights violations against migrants and refugees there are well documented. Since the EU-supported declaration of a Libyan search and rescue zone in the Central Mediterranean, private ship captains are often stuck in an impossible bind where EU states refuse to allow private ships to disembark rescued people in their ports but returning them to Libya breaches international law.

“This case has been marred by human rights violations including the detention of the then children in adult facilities, their prosecution in adult courts and the failure to call key witnesses to testify and to provide adequate interpretation. It should never have been brought to trial. Now that it has, we will be monitoring it closely to document whether Malta upholds its legal obligation to guarantee a fair trial to the accused.”


On 30 May, a preliminary hearing is expected to take place at 09:00 CET in Valetta Criminal Court. A trial monitor will be observing the proceedings.

In March 2019, three West African teenagers, from Ivory Coast and Guinea, (aged 15, 16, 19) boarded a crowded rubber boat, fleeing Libya together with 108 other people. After their boat started deflating, they were rescued by a private cargo ship, the El Hiblu. The ship’s captain then tried to return them to Libya, a move which would contravene international law, as captains have a legal duty to take those who they rescue at sea to a safe destination.

After the ship eventually arrived in Malta on 28 March 2019, the Maltese authorities arrested them, claiming the three youths had pressured the crew to change course. According to the many testimonies of asylum-seekers on the ship at the time, the three had tried to calm panicked people and acted as translators between the crew and the rescued people. They now face life sentences for charges of alleged terrorist activities, illegal arrest, detention and confinement, and other offences.

For more information see case summary here.