Stoking the fire 

Just like his predecessor, Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela epitomises the Labour government’s miserable track record on human rights.

Using the difficulties created by the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse, Abela banned asylum seekers seeking refuge from entering our ports. Some were abandoned to their death while others were sent back to a place where they will face war, rape and torture.

Manuel Delia revealed the use of a Maltese fishing vessel registered to an owner with a chequered history which was “commissioned by the government”, The Times of Malta reports, to take the surviving asylum seekers back to Libya. International law expert spoke of “consistent and recent evidence of collusion and complicity with Libyan traffickers and torturers”.

A pandemic does not give anyone the licence or reason to allow people to drown at sea. People are not expendable collateral. Using that narrative, they become dehumanised.

The murder of a 42-year-old refugee by a member of the Armed Forces who went out to shoot cats but instead decided to kill a person is a case in point.

Countries have a duty to determine whether an asylum seeker qualifies for refugee status based on the criteria set out by international law, agreements and treaties.

Countries, however, also have a duty to fulfil all their obligations to ensure the safety and wellbeing of every individual, in accordance with the Universal Human Rights charter. Besides, it is simply the right thing to do.

The international media, including The New York Times and The Guardian, reporting the incident, alleged that a soldier of the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) had boarded a refugees’ dinghy and severed an engine control cable, placing their lives in danger.

In a country based on the rule of law, there would have been an investigation or an inquiry into the incident or on the events alleged in the international media. But this is not a normal country.

As a result, civil society organisation Repubblika did what all of us should have done and asked for an investigation into the whole incident. This is what good citizens do. When new evidence presented itself – something the prime minister should have offered – they also presented this to the courts.

But, just like his predecessor and all populist, authoritarian autocrats, Abela resents a fundamental element of democracy and the rule of law – accountability.

Bristling with indignation he called a press conference, actually more of a monologue on aired by the State broadcaster, abusing his position as prime minister, to turn a nation against its citizens.

He made them national objects of hate, accusing them of treason and branding them enemies of the State. They were traitors who distracted him from the momentous task of commandeering the country through “the biggest challenge since World War II”. He was being shackled by those who only wanted to see him serve “a lifetime in jail”.

All this act had a definite goal: to fan the flames of racism and hate to prop himself up. Social media was ablaze with unprecedented levels of racism, topped by celebrations when migrants died. Members of Repubblika, who were already targets of pro-government trolls, now started receiving  “unprecedented levels” of online hate.

These are elements reminiscent of an era in Maltese history that many had thought they would never see again. That is why we should never take democracy for granted. That is why sitting on the fence is never an option.

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