Soldiers used rubber bullets on migrants apart from tear gas to quell the violent protest at the Safi detention centre last Tuesday, The Sunday Times has learnt.
Following reports that reached this newspaper, the Home Affairs Ministry yesterday confirmed that “a limited number of baton rounds” were used to restore order.
Baton rounds are non-lethal projectiles, such as rubber or plastic bullets, fired from riot guns.
“With the purpose to protect the lives of the law enforcement and civilian personnel as well as the well-being of the rioters themselves, control the situation and restore order, a limited number of baton rounds were used preceded by several warning shots,” a ministry spokesman said.
The “decisive” and “timely” action, he added, immediately brought the situation under control.
However, human rights lawyer Katrine Camilleri, a top official with the Jesuit Refugee Service has called for an inquiry to establish the facts and determine whether the use of force was “proportionate and necessary”.
“Given that a considerable amount of force was used, as rubber bullets are weapons that can cause serious injury and, in extreme cases, even death, it would be appropriate to institute an inquiry into the incident, even though no one appears to have been seriously injured,” Dr Camilleri said yesterday.
However, the ministry said baton rounds were used by the army and police units after repeated attempts to restore calm.
“Notwithstanding the show of force, repeated verbal warnings and the controlled use of tear gas ever increasing aggressiveness was evident towards the law enforcement officers, several of whom were hit by human excrement, rocks and metal pipes.”
A migrant speaking to this newspaper from Warehouse Two at the Safi detention centre yesterday said he saw black rubber bullets, which were picked up by his friends in the aftermath of Tuesday’s riot.
Sources also confirmed that some of the migrants displayed bruises and abrasions that were consistent with the use of rubber bullets.
This is possibly the first time that rubber bullets were used by law enforcement officials to quell a riot.
The quasi-silence that accompanied such a significant decision contrasts sharply with the cautious approach adopted by British police during the riots in England two weeks ago.
British police officials had warned that baton rounds could be used against looters but insisted such a decision would not be taken lightly. And though officers carried the ammunition it was not used.
On Tuesday, Malta’s Home Affairs Ministry had said “reasonable force” was used to quell the disturbance and confirmed that tear gas was used. But no mention was made of baton rounds.
The spokesman yesterday did not say who took the decision to fire baton rounds but insisted that their use is considered to be “a legitimate form of non-lethal force” included in the standard operating procedures of law enforcement agencies across the world in riot control scenarios.
Baton rounds are also included in the standard operating procedures of the Armed Forces of Malta as part of their guidelines on the use of force.
The spokesman said the guidelines ensure a structured approach to the escalation of force applied after exhausting all other available means to achieve the desired effect.
The ministry yesterday reiterated that only one migrant was injured in Tuesday’s operation. On the other hand injuries to 15 police officers and three soldiers were reported.
Dr Camilleri also called for the inquiry to look into the actions of the security forces immediately after the protest was quelled.
Migrants detained in Warehouse One where the unrest started complained that after the protest their living quarters were searched and personal property, including clothes, food, bibles and Korans, were strewn around and, in some cases, damaged or torn.
They also claimed that a number of personal items such as documents, easy line cards, watches and even toiletries were taken without any receipts issued.
Dr Camilleri said that while it was perfectly acceptable to conduct searches for security reasons, they should be conducted with due respect for the individuals concerned and their personal property.
She said it was necessary to determine whether the search was necessary and conducted properly in order to dispel any doubts that the measures used were a form of collective punishment.
The violent disturbance took place after tens of frustrated migrants who fled Libya about six months ago were refused asylum. Several migrants, mostly West Africans, set fire to mattresses and skips in what they called a “cry for freedom”.
They also pelted police officers and soldiers with a shower of stones, some of which had been broken off the walls.
The police have charged 23 migrants, believed to be the most violent, in court. They have been remanded in custody at the Corradino Correctional Facility.