“Heroes, not criminals – free them now!”

Activists from Malta gathered in Brussels, calling on MEPs to put pressure for the release of three young migrants who are at risk of facing life sentences in prison.

Around 80 people – mostly human rights activists – from Malta have staged a protest in front of the European Parliament in Brussels to demand MEPs to put pressure on their home country to release the ‘El Hiblu 3’, in so doing bringing to an end what they described as an injustice that has been dragging on for five years.

The El Hiblu case involves three young men, who have become known as the ‘El Hiblu 3’, and who are facing serious charges in Malta which could lead them to be sentenced to life in prison if found guilty. The case has raised questions about migration policies, treatment of refugees, and the criminalisation of actions taken in desperate situations.

The protesters in Brussels, who were joined by Maltese MEP Cyrus Engerer (S&D), included members of the Women’s Rights Foundation, Malta Gay Rights Movement, and Moviment Graffitti. Also in attendance was Engerer’s partner, Partit Laburista CEO Randolph de Battista. The demonstrators carried several placards with messages including ‘Drop the charges now!’, ‘In solidarity with the El Hiblu 3’, ‘End this injustice: free the El Hiblu 3’, and ‘Say it Loud: Free the El Hiblu 3’.

Photo: David Mallia

Those present were addressed by MEP Engerer, Dutch MEP Thijs Reuten (S&D), German MEP Dietmar Koster (S&D), Dutch MEP Tineke Strik (Greens/European Free Alliance), and Irish MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace (both from The Left group).

What is the El Hiblu case?

In March 2019, Amara Kromah, Abdul Kader, and Abdalla Bari, three teenagers (aged 15, 16, and 19) were among 108 migrants rescued at sea off the coast of Libya by the cargo ship ‘El Hiblu 1’. The ship’s captain initially tried to return them to Libya, which is illegal under international law. The teenagers, who were among the few on board who could speak English, allegedly helped calm the panicked passengers and communicate with the crew.

The ship eventually reached Malta, where the teenagers were arrested and accused of hijacking the vessel. They face charges including terrorism, potentially leading to life imprisonment. The Attorney General’s decision for the young men to go to trial to face terrorism charges was formalised last November when prosecutors filed a Bill of Indictment against them.

Photo: BBC

Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International believe the charges are unfair and accuse the Maltese authorities of misrepresentation. They argue the teenagers were simply trying to protect themselves and the other migrants from being returned to dangerous conditions in Libya.

No to a “fortress Europe” – Cyrus Engerer

“Something that is clear and that we really need to declare and fight for is that, ultimately, these three young men – who were minors when they were saved – are not terrorists. They are heroes, because it was thanks to them that 108  people did not end up drowining in the Mediterranean sea, that has become a cemetery because of a fortress Europe that talks a lot about solidarity, values, and human rights, but then creates walls when it comes to saving people who are being tortured, murdered, and raped in Libya and elswehere. We know that, as soon as those on board ‘El Hiblu’ realised that they were being turned back to Libya, there was chaos because they would have rather drowned than go back to being tortured in Libya. These people had no choice because the alternative to arriving in Europe was that of being pushed back to death, torture, or rape. It’s easy to pount fingers at people. By acting as interpreters, these three young men calmed down the situation and helped these 108 people to reach safety in Malta. Therefore, we should be applauding them as heroes and not treating them as criminals.”

The fight never stops: MEP Thijs Reuten (The Netherlands – S&D)

“I want to say how much I admire people who stand up for their own rights but also for the rights of others, because it takes courage, first of all. It is a marathon, it is an uphill batle, as we all know, but it’s so important that you made the effort to come here. In Europe, as we know, we all fight on the same side, on the side of the people who sometimes cannot speak for themselves, do not want to speak for themselves, or are afraid to stand up, because of personal reasons. That is the fight that we are taking up together with you… The ‘El Hiblu 3’ is a terrible example of people who had no bad intentions whatsoever. They wanted to help, and they also wanted – like you – to stand up for their rights. Helping others, standing up for the right cause and for justice, can never be punished, can never be a crime… You are not alone. We are taking this fight together, we are united in this, and we will not stop… There will be a new European Parliament, there will be elections in other countries, but this fight never stops because the fight for fundamental rights is something that is never finished… If you stop improving things for a few years, effectively you are backsliding.”

Photo: David Mallia

Respect for European values – MEP Dietmar Koster (Germany – S&D)

“We want to show our solidarity. It is unacceptable that those who are fighting for the refugees, who were engaged to see that they could reach a safe harbour, are now accused in a court. Those who are engaged in supporting and strengthening human rights must be supported; we do not want to criminalise those who are fighting for human rigths. The European Union is built on respect for human rights, on these special values, and therefore this detention of the ‘El Hiblu 3’ is unacceptable and undermines the fundamental values on which the EU is built. Therefore, free the ‘El Hiblu 3’ – let’s fight for them.”

Photo: David Mallia

An abomination and a tragedy – MEP Clare Daly (Ireland – The Left group)

“It’s so good – and bad – that you’re here. It’s absolutely appalling that you have to be here, to come to the European Parliament, to protest about an abomination and, in fact, a tragedy. That the three innocent young men who sought refuge in Europe, who sought to help their fellow refugees, find themselves criminalised and anondoned by a system that they look up to in hope, is absolitely disgraceful. What is even more disgraceful is that they are only symptomatic of a much larger component of people who are criminalised across European countries and, of course, all the other victims, the desperate people fleeing war and instability and climate change all across the world, seeking refuge in Europe only to find the border shut… We need to change the system. Keep up the good work.”

Photo: David Mallia

Europe’s colonial mindset persists – MEP Mick Wallace (Ireland – The Left group)

“It’s good that you’ve come. The point that you are making  – and we make it everyday in Parliament – is that we call ourselves the ‘civlised world’ in the European Union, and we pretend that we’re the ones that are civilised and that we’re the ones with a history of civilisation. Civilised people would accept opther nationalities and other cultures for what they are and they wold respect all cultures. At the root of how we treat migrants is the fact that we’re actually still racist and the colonial mindset persists.”

Photo: David Mallia

MEP Tineke Strik (The Netherlands – Greens/European Free Alliance)

“Thanks a lot to all of you activists for coming here in Brussels to confront us again with the reality at the borders of the EU. We talk a lot about rule of law and human rights but it seems that they do not count at the borders and for people seeking asylum and suffering dangerous journeys on their way to protection. It think it’s really good to be here, with colleagues, to assure you that you are not – at least completely – alone. We work together a lot because we think that it’s really vital that your concern is heard by all of us and that we make sure that rule of law, human rights, and justice, prevail also at our borders. A number of countries are violating the rules when it comes to access to asylum, with pushbacks and detention of poeple, and they enjoy full impunity. The European Commission, instead of enforcing compiance with the rules, alows the victims to be criminalised. This is the upside down world which we really should address on a daily basis. We are here in full support of your fight for justice for the ‘El Hiblu 3’. We are also here for all the others who just did what they had to do, namely to make sure that they were not sent to an unsafe haven, and for all those other people who give aid to people who are under threat of drowning. We need to be your voice, of those who are criminalised, so that this comes toi an end. In the end, justice will prevail.”

Photo: David Mallia

“Breaking barriers”

At the end of the demonstration, MEP Cyrus Engerer Cyrus Engerer stressed the vital importance of such initaitives, urging continued action to further dismantle barriers to human rights protection.

“It was very important for all of us to be here today to convey our clear message in front of the European Parliament building, as this is the parliament that belongs to all European citizens,” he told The Journal. “Having 80 people from Malta protesting for human rights – whether it’s migrant rights, sexual and reproductive health rights, LGBTQ rights – sends a strong signal from the smallest EU member state. Our collective efforts are dismantling these barriers; let’s keep pushing for progress.”

In Brussels, the group of activists are also organising events to raise awareness of LGBTQ rights. Moreover, a pro-choice rally is scheduled to be held in front of the Maltese Embassy in Belgium tomorrow.

Main photo: Sandro Mangion

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