Military personnel could be seen standing guard at Valletta harbor on the vessel's deck, surrounding a dozen migrants.
A group of 108 migrants, who were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea, commandeered the small Maltese tanker after being made aware they would be returned to Libya instead of their intended destination.
The migrants directed the crew to proceed to Malta. As the ship approached Italy's southern islands of Lampedusa and Malta, the Armed Forces of Malta (ADM) were able to establish contact with the captain once the vessel was 30 nautical miles off the island. “The captain repeatedly stated that he was not in control of the vessel and that he and his crew were being forced and threatened by a number of migrants to proceed to Malta,” stated the AMF.
The cargo ship El Hiblu 1 was eventually reclaimed by soldiers as it entered Maltese waters.
The vessel was met by a patrol boat carrying a special operations team that then boarded and secured the cargo ship. It has not yet been confirmed whether the team used force to carry out the operation since two fast interceptor crafts and a helicopter were present as backups.
As the ship was escorted to Valletta harbor and docked at Boiler Wharf in the city of Senglea, military personnel could be seen standing guard on the vessel's deck, surrounding about a dozen migrants. Police met the ship at the shore to take migrants into custody.
Migrants coming from Libya have often been subjected to many human rights violations, such as torture. Mediterranea, an advocacy group that conducts migrant rescue operations and monitors government treatment of migrants, is urging European governments to act "in the name of fundamental rights, remembering that we are dealing with human beings feeling hell."
The migrants who travel by sea constantly face the risk of drowning or being stopped by Libya's coast guard and held in detention facilities that are allegedly rampant with abuse violations.
Despite pressure from humanitarian groups, members of the European Union "alert the Libyan coast guard when refugees and migrants are spotted at sea so they can be taken back to Libya, despite knowing that people there are arbitrarily detained and exposed to widespread torture, rape, killings and exploitation," Matteo de Bellis, an international migration expert for Amnesty International, explained.
While both Italy and Malta have both closed their ports to migrant rescue ships, and remain at the center of many disputes with other European countries regarding responsibility for migrants who have risked their lives to escape violence, Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini doubled down on this stance, calling the migrants on the El Hiblu 1 "criminals" who had engaged in an act of piracy.
International definitions of piracy diverge, Salvini has classified the migrants' act of desperation as "an act of robbery or criminal violence by ship or ship-borne attackers upon another ship or coastal area, typically with the goal of stealing cargo and other valuable items or properties," according to Maritime Piracy Law author Lucas Bento.