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Exclusive: Carmelo Grech - 'I carried neither money nor arms but I will not return to Libya'

Rachel Attard Sunday, 6 September 2015, 09:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

Carmelo Grech, the man who was kept in custody in Libya for a number of days over what turned out to be a visa mix-up, spoke exclusively to The Malta Independent on Sunday. He says he was not carrying a huge sum of money, as alleged, or weapons, as also alleged. He was not tortured but from his cell he heard other prisoners being beaten. After this experience, he will not go back to Libya. This is his story, as told to Rachel Attard

Can you tell me exactly what happened?

I left Malta on 5 August and flew to Berlin. The reason I went there was because I had to meet some Libyans and together we left for Istanbul. In Istanbul we were supposed to meet other Libyans who are representatives of the Tobruk government because they had to pay me for fuel I had used during the revolution of 2011. 

As soon as we landed, we were told that they could not make it and asked me to go to Labraq. I never had the intention of going to Libya.

In the meantime, arrangements were made for me, through the Afriqija Station Manager, to obtain an airport visa from Misurata.

On 11 August I arrived in Misurata and found the Afriqija Station Manager waiting for me. He issued the visa allowing me to travel to Labraq, which I can show you on my passport.

I stayed one night in Misurata and the following day I went to Mitiga airport and from there I took a flight to Labraq.

The immigration officers at Mitiga (Tripoli) airport asked me if I was going to Egypt and I told them no. The flight to Al Bayda Airport in Labraq had a two-hour delay and I arrived there on 13th August at three in the morning.

As soon as I landed, I called my wife Dorothy to let her know I had arrived. A few minutes later, the immigration officer at Al Bayda Airport saw the visa on my passport and said it was a fake one; he took my passport and I ended up being arrested.

The immigration officers then called the police and I heard them say that I should be taken to prison. In fact I was taken to Garnada prison. They searched my luggage, took my laptop, documents and mobile and put me in a cell with about seven people.

In the morning, one of the prison’s directors asked me: ‘Why did the immigration officers in Labraq arrest you?’ I told him that the immigration officer maintained that the visa on my passport was fake.

He started laughing and said that it was an original visa not a fake one at all. The director told me: ‘Carmelo tonight I finish work at six and will take you to the hotel’. I waited for him to come and pick me up but nothing happened.

Two days passed and on the third day I was called and cross-examined further. I was asked what connections I had with Misurata people and reply was that I had worked in the humanitarian aid mission in 2011 under the mandate of the United Nations and I used to transport doctors medicine, and food on my trawler escorted by NATO vessels.

On 15th August I was allowed to speak to my family and told them that I had been arrested on a visa issue and asked them to inform the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Malta.

On the fourth day they told me I would be released and sent on a flight but once again nothing happened and no one came for me.

In the meantime, one of my prison mates was released and I asked him to call my wife and give her my exact location.

One morning, a representative from the Tobruk government came to prison and told me that he would be assisting me and reassured me that ‘no crime was done and in a few days you will be sent home’.

After 21 days locked in a cell, a prison warden came and told me to have a shower and dress properly because General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar would like to meet me.

Military police came for me, they had my luggage and I told myself that finally this nightmare was over and I would once again see the sun which I hadn’t for a long time.

As soon as I arrived, I was again arrested for 18 hours and this time the officers there started interrogating me. They basically asked the same questions, I spent three hours in a locked room all by myself, another six hours in an office alone and every so often they got me food.

During all this time I was being monitored by a camera on the ceiling.

Last Wednesday, at around one o’clock in the morning they told me to go and rest in my room. After three hours I was woken up and told ‘Carmelo you are free’ and asked what would I like to do. Arrangements were made for me to leave the country and I was taken to a hotel. I must add that I never met General Haftar.

The following day at around ten in the morning, they came for me; one of them was a representative from the Foreign Affairs Office of Tobruk government. After some time, people from the Intelligence Unit arrived and told me ‘we are formally apologizing for what happened to you’.

I also received a call from the Tobruk Charges d’affaires in Malta, Mr Al Habib Al Amin, in which he also apologized on behalf of the Tobruk government.

He asked me what I wanted to do and my immediate response was that I would like to catch a plane and fly back to Malta. I went to Al Bayda Airport and Mr Al Amin told me that a Medavia plane would be waiting for me. He added that the Tobruk government would pay for all the expenses incurred.

We left Labraq at 9pm and arrived in Malta at around midnight. At the airport together with my family there was also Mr Amin waiting for me. Once again he apologized for the distressing ordeal I had gone through. I must say that after I was released I was treated like a VIP.

When I was arrested, I was treated well by these people and would like to thank them: the Garnada prison officers, the officers at the headquarters of General Haftar, the Intelligence Unit and the Tobruk Charges d’affaires in Malta Mr Al Amin and the Maltese government.


Where there moments when you felt that you would never be free again?

Yes, sometimes I did, especially when I used to hear people being beaten up, moaning in pain and a lot of shouting. But I must say that I was never touched or tortured. They treated me well but I spent the first three days crying all the time.

Was there a Maltese government representative in Libya and were you ever contacted by the Maltese Ambassador to Libya Manni Galea?

No, there was no one and no one contacted me except my family.


In this whole experience what did you miss mostly?

Family and freedom. I will never go to Libya again.

While you were under arrest in Libya, a number of stories in the Maltese press were reported. The Times of Malta said you were arrested because you were carrying over €300,000 in cash, and MaltaToday said you were going to be arraigned in court for allegedly smuggling weapons. Why should I believe you and not them?

Both stories are not true at all. I can’t imagine myself carrying all that cash, plus where are they suggesting I got the money from? The money I was owed, which was less than what the newspaper said, was not going to be given to me in cash. The money was to be wired to my bank account. As regards the smuggling of arms, what are they insinuating – that I carried them in my luggage? I say once again that these stories are not true and I am going to take legal action.


You have a fishing trawler, the Mae Yemanja, registered with a company called Gulf Fisheries Ltd. This trawler was confiscated by the Maltese Police three years ago over alleged contraband cigarette smuggling. Is this true?

No, and I provided the police with the necessary documents, which I also presented in court, which showed that I had everything in order.


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