The United Nations human rights office called on Malta to drop terrorism charges against three African teenage migrants arrested for hijacking a small commercial tanker that rescued their vessel off Libya.
The three, who pleaded not guilty, were among 108 Africans rescued by the El Hiblu 1 tanker in late March. They are accused of threatening the crew to force the boat to Malta and not back to Libya.
Many migrants, including children, were dehydrated and exhibiting “clear signs of torture”, UN human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said.
The three youths – one from Ivory Coast and two from Guinea – are due in court on May 20, she said.
“The accused, aged 15, 16 and 19, have been charged under Maltese laws for allegedly hijacking the ship and forcing it to go to Malta. Some charges are punishable by life imprisonment,” Shamdasani told a news briefing.
Circumstances around the captain’s decision to finally steer the ship to Malta are disputed, the UN is concerned by the severity of the charges.
Even though two are minors, all three accused were held in the high-security division of an adult prison, amid reports they were interrogated without legal guardians present, Shamdasani said.
“We made our concerns clear to Maltese authorities about treatment of the three young migrants and what we believe to be exaggerated charges against them and urged them to reconsider the charges,” she said.
There was no immediate comment from Maltese authorities.
Libya is “not a safe port”, Shamdasani said, citing documented killings, torture and arbitrary detention of migrants.
Forcibly returning a migrant rescued at sea to Libya violates the core legal principle of “non-refoulement” prohibiting returns to a place where a person would be at risk of serious human rights violations, she said.
The European Union (EU) and its member states must ensure sufficient search and rescue resources are deployed in the Mediterranean, she said.