The Malta Independent 21 May 2022, Saturday

Tourist boat registration changed days before it became floating detention facility, court hears

Wednesday, 26 January 2022, 13:22 Last update: about 5 months ago

Captain Morgan's general manager Kevin Zammit Briffa has told a judge that the vessels used as an offshore detention centre for migrants had their registration changed from "passenger vessels" to "workboats" at around the same time that the company was engaged by government to house migrants.

He also said he did not know how the company had been selected to do so.

Zammit Briffa was testifying in the Constitutional case filed against the Prime Minister, the Minister of Home Affairs and the State Advocate by a group of 32 migrants who were detained in what they termed a "floating prison" after Malta closed its ports in 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

From the witness stand, Zammit Briffa explained to Mr. Justice Toni Abela that passenger vessels were only allowed three miles offshore, but with the workboat licence they could carry passengers outside Malta's territorial waters. He claimed not to know exactly how the company had got involved in the holding of migrants.

The government had chartered four commercial sightseeing boats from Captain Morgan and Supreme Travel, and used them to detain asylum seekers who were rescued in the Maltese search and rescue region.

In total, 57 individuals had been rescued by the Libyan-flagged fishing vessel Dar al-Salaam, which was itself involved in a separate alleged pushback to Libya. In a coordinated government-led operation, the group of rescued migrants were transferred to the Captain Morgan vessel around 13 nautical miles off Malta's coast.

The operation came at a time when both Malta and Italy had closed their ports to migrant rescues citing the coronavirus outbreak. Malta had claimed that sea rescue was not possible due to its limited resources, prohibiting the humanitarian ships from entering port.

Asked by lawyer Cedric Mifsud as to how the company ended up hosting the migrants, Zammit Briffa replied: "Exactly I don't know. I know that there was a request from the government and we complied." He did not believe there had been a tender, he added.

"At the time we started with one boat to host the immigrants. Works had to be carried out."

Captain Morgan CEO Edward Zammit Tabona had informed Zammit Briffa of the operation over the phone "around two or three days before" the operation, he said, but insisted that he did not know who had engaged Zammit Tabona's services.

Mifsud asked the witness whether there was a contract for this service to government. "Yes," he said. State Advocate Chris Soler objected to Mifsud's request that the witness exhibit this contract.

The judge pointed out that the original complaint was about inhuman and degrading treatment, not contract issues. Mifsud replied that he was building towards that.

Captain Morgan was engaged to provide a ship equipped with a dormitory, and a crew, the witness said. "The instructions we had, I don't recall exactly, was that we had to stay so many miles off the coast of Malta." Zammit Briffa claimed that he did not know who made that decision or who, or what entity, had told the company about it.

Resupply and logistics were handled by a separate company, unrelated to Captain Morgan, Zammit Briffa said. It would deliver supplies three times a day. "We weren't involved." The supplies were provided by a ship chandler whom the witness could not recall the name of.

Asked who would pay for the supplies, the witness said he couldn't say. Neither did he know the level of government involvement or its relationship to the contract.

Had he seen the government involved in some way, asked Mifsud. "Directly? No."

Mifsud asked him whether he knew why the ship had been ordered to stay 13 miles offshore. Zammit Briffa said he did not, but confirmed that the orders came from the company director who Zammit Briffa reported to.

Bahhari Atlantis and Europa were licenced as workboats, said the witness in reply to another question. This meant that they could leave territorial waters, as well as carry supplies and people.

Judge Abela asked whether they had carried out these tasks before on a commercial basis. "No," replied the witness. Mifsud asked why they had been registered as workboats then. "They were registered so they could carry people outside territorial waters," replied Zammit Briffa.

He explained that the vessels had previously been registered as passenger vessels and allowed only three miles offshore. They had been re-registered as workboats around the same time that they had been engaged by the government to act as offshore holding centres, the witness went on.

The vessels had to be modified to do so, he said, with dormitories, washing and toilet facilities being added. The crew complement was also doubled. Answering a question from the judge, the witness said that no photographs of the modifications had been taken.

Asked about security arrangements on board, Zammit Briffa said that there were security personnel on board, but added that they had not been contracted by Captain Morgan. "This was not in our hands. There were security guards, but we had nothing to do with them. They were engaged by the ship chandler."

The witness confirmed that the Armed Forces of Malta were "involved" but claimed that he did not know why, explaining that the ship chandler dealt and liaised with the AFM.

Zammit Briffa said that measures had been taken against Covid-19 and contingency plans were in place.

"If someone was positive or sick, we were instructed to contact the ship chandler who would send a doctor to check them out. I believe that some people were taken ashore."

There was one medical emergency on board, he said, in reply to a question by the judge, a crewmember who slipped and had to be airlifted to hospital.

Mr. Justice Abela asked whether there had been any unrest on board. There was, said the witness, but it was "mostly between them, not so much against the crew."

No requests for lawyers or UNHCR were received from the immigrants or directly from management, Zammit Briffa said.

Mifsud asked how the service came to an end. "I received instructions from the director to tell the captains to return to port at certain times."

Before adjourning the case to March, the judge warned the plaintiffs that he did not want an endless procession of witnesses, as the case would otherwise "never end." "A constitutional case is not a normal case," the judge said. "Concentrate on your complaints and as much as possible, avoid introducing information or issues which do not help your complaints," the judge said.

Lawyers Cedric Mifsud, Neil Falzon, Katrine Camilleri and Carla Camilleri appeared for the plaintiffs.


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