Chilling documentary interviews
Written by David Lindsay
Sunday, 17 December 2006

From Malta to torture and death: Chilling documentary interviews ‘ex-Malta’ deportees

Four years after Malta controversially repatriated 223 Eritrean irregular migrants, the country is still haunted by that decision, and the subsequent fate of the deportees.

A chilling documentary, released by Human Rights Concern – Eritrea and recently screened at Amnesty International’s UK Human Rights Centre, chronicles the story of six Eritreans after they were repatriated from Malta in 2002.

Through a series of interviews the documentary recounts the detention, torture and death of those to whom it refers as “ex- Malta deportees” after they were returned to Eritrea, despite warnings and appeals from Eritrea’s opposition party and human rights organisations.

In Eritrea: Voices of Torture, Habtom Teclab and Semir Mohamed Gaid, and four others interviewed on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, relate how and why they escaped from their forced army conscription and wound up in detention in Malta in 2002.

Despite protests, in September and October 2002 the government took the now well-documented decision to begin repatriating over 220 Eritreans in what many at the time considered a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment.

Upon arrival in Eritrea, Habtom Teclab recalls: “We saw so many Eritrean troops with their guns when we came down the stairs from the plane. One by one, the troops took us to the waiting buses.”

The repatriated migrants were taken to Adi Abeto prison, where the cold cement floor of a cell served as both bed and toilet, and where they were routinely tortured as part of a “ruthless campaign of interrogation”.

An anonymous ex-Malta deportee recalls: “I was handcuffed with a chain that could be tightened, restricting blood flow, causing my hands to swell as I was being beaten.”

The interviewees say the group from the plane were systematically beaten and subjected to various forms of inhuman treatment. Teclab and a group of others attempted to escape but were discovered, returned to camp and “beaten mercilessly”.

After two months of sustained torture, the group were taken in the back of trucks to a waiting ship that set off for an unknown destination. So desperate was their plight, an interviewee describes how one tortured ex-Malta deportee, Walta Haile, flung himself overboard with bound hands in a suicide attempt, only to be caught in the ship’s propeller and suffer severe cuts to his face.

The destination was the infamous Dahlak Kebir Island prison, where the interviewees recount daily beatings and exposure to the elements in 45-50 degree conditions, with no more to drink than contaminated water from a nearby refinery.

Teclab and a group of others attempted yet another escape. “Things were getting worse, and we knew we were going to die anyway, so we decided it was better to die trying to escape than wait here painfully. We also knew death was inevitable if we were caught.”

He recounts: “We were beaten mercilessly when they first caught us, with everything the soldiers found at hand. Some soldiers urged others to kill us but they said ‘don’t kill them – if they die, they won’t suffer enough’.”

Teclab describes how he was beaten until he vomited blood, and was left tied and exposed to the elements in the so-called suspended helicopter position for 55 days and nights – until his hands turned blue and his skin changed colour and peeled off.

Against all the odds, Teclab survived this ordeal. He was transferred to another prison camp in September 2003 and, after several escape attempts, he was finally successful.

Others were not so lucky. An anonymous interviewee was shot while fleeing and his untreated wounds have left one leg three inches shorter than the other. Others were shot dead.

Through the efforts of the UNHCR and Amnesty International, Teclab and 35 others were eventually resettled in Canada, while other ex-Malta deportees were resettled in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Australia and the UK.

Claims that, in deporting the Eritreans in 2002, Malta had violated the UN convention – in that the deportees were likely to be tortured on return – and Amnesty International guidelines, went before the Maltese courts. But a magisterial inquiry cleared the government and the police.

Nevertheless, Gaid reiterates the claims of forcible deportation. He describes how one night, while sleeping at about one or two in the morning, some 300 Maltese soldiers came to repatriate 150 Eritreans, armed with “sprays, sticks and guns”. He also claims they were “forcibly handcuffed and beaten”. “We tried to tell them that we had escaped from being killed and that they were sending us back to certain death.”

A streamed version of the video can be viewed at: