Tasked with rescuing migrants who arrive on Malta's shores, two soldiers have been charged with murdering two men who arrived from Ivory Coast. Charged with murder and race-related crimes, they face life in prison.
Two Maltese soldiers on Sunday were arraigned over the murder of a migrant from Ivory Coast, the Times of Malta reported.
Twenty-one-year-old Francesco Fenech and Lorin Scicluna, 22, were charged with racially motivated murder and inciting hatred on the basis of race.
The two soldiers are suspected of being involved in the drive-by shooting on Ivorian national Lassana Cisse Souleymane on April 6.
Souleymane was walking home in the village of Hal-Far in the south of Malta when he was shot dead.
He worked in a factory close by and was known for checking on his fellow countrymen in the migrants' center after work, local media reported.
Souleymane's death is believed to be the country's first racially motivated slaying.
Two other migrants — one from Guinea and one from the Gambia — were injured in the shooting.
In court on Sunday, the two soldiers pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a maximum of life in prison, the Times of Malta said.
Police said the attack was racially motivated and a source in the investigation said one of the suspects had admitted to targeting the migrants "just because they were black."
Previous violent charges added
The pair was also charged with a hit-and-run accident at the same spot in February when a migrant from Chad sustained severe injuries, the paper said.
Malta has become a busy arrival point for migrants from Africa and the Middle East, who are rescued from the Mediterranean Sea.
The migrants often pay traffickers thousands of euros to help them make dangerous journeys in barely seaworthy vessels.
Migration has become a key political issue, particularly ahead of European Parliament elections this week.
A wave of growing hate speech against migrants, particularly on social media, has prompted political and church leaders to speak out.
Sixty NGOs and rights groups issued a statement on Sunday saying that the case should serve as a "wake-up call" about what happens when racism is allowed to fester without consequence.
The alleged involvement of two soldiers has raised questions about racism in the Maltese army, which is responsible for saving Europe-bound migrants caught in distress at sea.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Sunday ordered an internal military investigation into whether the racially motivated crime was an isolated incident.
"We have to be angry that we allowed this environment of hatred to fester amongst us," Muscat said on Saturday. "I am angry at myself. A man was killed for kicks. He did nothing to them. We are not that type of people."
mm/sms (AP, DPA, Reuters)