Photo: Amnesty International / Joanna Demarco

  One of the asylum seekers rescued by the tanker El Hiblu told the court that many among those rescued had panicked when they realised the captain had changed route and was sailing to Libya instead.

  Taking the witness stand on Friday during the criminal proceedings against three youths accused of hijacking the vessel, the man told the court that he helped in calming down the asylum seekers.

  In March 2019, a group of 108 people were rescued by the cargo ship El Hiblu 1 which was instructed by an aircraft of the European military operation EUNAVFOR MED. The ship’s crew sought to return the rescued to Libya, however, the people on board protested their return. The crew eventually steered north to Malta.

  Three teenagers were arrested upon their arrival to Malta and detained for seven months. The trio is facing charges of terrorism and if found guilty they face between seven and 30 years behind bars.

  The witness told the court that he had been “vomiting blood” when he learnt he could be returned to Libya. Describing the situation on board the El Hiblu 1, the witness said the crew was very hospitable. He also denied the claims that the accused were carrying ‘weapons’ when they went to speak with the captain.

  The man told the court that some threatened to jump into the water upon learning they were being returned to Libya. He confirmed that people were crying and screaming when asked by defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud. He added that it was after the captain re-directed to Libya.

  “I was sick, I was vomiting blood,” the witness told the Court when asked by the defence if panic ensued.

  The accused had gone to speak to the captain when the panic ensued, the witness told the court, and confirmed that they were then called by the captain.

  The witness said the accused were not violent towards the crew who had provided the group with food and water.

  At the beginning of the sitting, the court appointed a new interpreter for the accused after an application was filed expressing doubts as to the previous interpreter’s work.

  Defence lawyer and aditus Foundation director Neil Falzon asked the witness if he spoke and understood French, the witness told the court he speaks Bambara and that although he spoke French there were words which he didn’t understood.

  The prosecution argued that the witness had testified in French for over half an hour during a previous sitting.

  The court dictated a note pointing out that the court had observed him communicating with the French interpreter and had replied to its questions.

  The case continues in October.

  Lawyers Cedric Mifsud, Malcolm Mifsud, Gianluca Capitta and aditus Foundation director Neil Falzon appeared on behalf of the accused.

  Lawyer George Camilleri appeared on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office.

  Police Inspector Omar Zammit led the prosecution.