The United Nations Committee on the rights of the child maintains that Malta may have violated its obligations under international human rights law. The UN High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Amnesty International agree.
Malta is accused of detaining two children in an adult correctional facility – Corradino jail, whose director believes it is his job to teach fear.
Malta is accused of failing to promptly appoint legal guardians to two teenagers before their interrogation and arrest.
Malta is accused of charging the two children before an adult court rather than a juvenile one.
Malta is accused of compromising their right to a fair trial through the prolonged refusal by the police to call first hand witnesses to give testimony at the magisterial inquiry.
A multitude of international organisations from Amnesty international to the European Democratic lawyers, the International Association of Democratic lawyers and several other organisations from South Africa, Greece, Spain, Italy, Ukraine, UK, Austria, Turkey, Belgium, Philippines, Germany, Switzerland and the United States have all denounced Malta for its treatment of the teenagers and repeatedly called on the authorities to drop charges.
Jean McKenzie from the BBC spent over a month in Malta trying to get answers to the serious questions surrounding the teenagers’ cruel treatment. The Attorney General’s office refused to speak to the BBC. The police and prosecution wouldn’t reply. McKenzie commented that “We can’t get an answer to a single one of our questions from the authorities – as soon as you mention this case the shutters slam down”.
In desperation the BBC contacted Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo to try and get some answers. Instead they got insults. The country’s reputation sustained further humiliating and irreparable damage at the Minister’s hands.
“People are telling us that these teenagers are caught in a political game” the BBC challenged. Evarist Bartolo belligerently replied: “These self-righteous people should try to understand what pressures we are faced with”.
“Do you really want to be the country that is responsible for charging a 15 year old child of being a terrorist?”, the BBC enquired.
“I told you, I don’t want to go into the specifics of the case”, Bartolo rebutted. “We have saved thousands” he defended. “So it’s OK to lock up these children?”
“I’m not saying it’s OK, I’m saying it’s unfair to focus only on a case which deals with three persons” the Minister stonily replied.
One of those three persons escaped from Guinea, his home country riven by violence and repression, at the age of 13. On 25th March 2019, aged 15, he boarded an inflatable dinghy from Garabulli, Libya together with another 107 people.
After just hours at sea, the dinghy started deflating and sinking. The next day the dinghy was spotted by an aircraft deployed by the EU joint operation EunavforMed Sophia which instructed a nearby oil tanker called El Hiblu to assist the refugees in distress.
The EU aircraft relayed instructions to El Hiblu on behalf of the Libyan coast guard to return the migrants to Tripoli. Panic ensued when they realised they were being taken back to Libya and many threatened to jump overboard. The young Guinean who could speak English acted as interpreter between the captain and the migrants.
Faced with the demands of the 108 migrants on board the captain changed course and headed to Malta. Before the vessel reached Maltese shores, the Maltese government and the media were speaking of “hijacking” and “an act of piracy”. The captain had radioed Malta claiming that the ship had been hijacked and that he was not in control.
The Maltese Armed Forces and the police were waiting and, storming the vessel, they took the Guinean child into custody in handcuffs. The police took evidence from the captain and the crew before allowing them to leave the island.
None of the over 100 migrants on board were allowed to testify. Despite trying to speak to the authorities to give evidence, they were not allowed.
The teenager was charged with acts of terrorism, illegal arrest, detention and confinement of persons, private violence against persons and property and threatening behaviour.
Yet evidence given by the crew, AFM and the police at the magisterial inquiry confirmed that no crew member or migrant was harmed in any way. No damage was done to the vessel. When the AFM boarded the ship, the situation was quiet and the crew was in control.
It took over 2 years before the first migrant was allowed to give evidence. His testimony confirmed there was no violence on board. The captain had asked the teenager to help with interpretation. The teenager had been calming the rest of the migrants down.
Prosecuting inspector Omar Zammit asked “Why the need for calm, implying that there was unrest?”. When faced with the prospect of being disembarked in the hell hole that is Libya, notorious for the systematic abuse, torture, and rape at its detention centres, after having survived drowning, calm is a precious commodity.
That teenager is unlikely to have experienced much calm in the two and a half years since he was handcuffed and jailed without legal guardianship in an adult facility and charged with offences carrying a life sentence. That sword of Damocles still hangs on his neck as the sluggish Maltese justice system continues to rob the teenager of his life.
Malta has adopted several unlawful tactics at sea – pushbacks towards Libya, delayed or refused rescues, diversion of refugees’ boats to Italy, arbitrary detention of migrants on unsuitable ferries outside territorial waters.
It has breached international standards on land by detaining asylum seekers in appalling conditions verging on “institutional mass neglect” which may amount to “inhuman and degrading treatment contrary to article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights”.
Malta now adds violations of children’s rights to its appalling human rights record. And remains deaf to the calls of over 30 human rights organisations and the UN to stop the trial – to stop the child cruelty.