Migrant rescue crew faces Italian courts

Migrants rescued by the Libyan coastguard in the Mediterranean Sea arrive in Garaboli, Libya,...
Migrants rescued by the Libyan coastguard in the Mediterranean Sea arrive in Garaboli, Libya, earlier this week. PHOTO: REUTERS
The crew of the Iuventa rescue ship has been credited with saving 14,000 lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Yet far from being feted for their life-saving work, four of the rescuers appeared in court in Italy last weekend on charges carrying a possible 20-year jail sentence.

"It feels like a never-ending nightmare," campaigner Kathrin Schmidt told media ahead of a preliminary hearing last weekend in a court in the Sicilian coastal town of Trapani.

More than 24,000 people who tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe since 2014 are dead or missing, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Schmidt never set out to run a search-and-rescue boat but, in 2016, became team leader on the Iuventa. The crew were trained to be quick and efficient dealing with migrants who might be panicking, sick or injured on overcrowded boats.

On August 2 2017, everything seemed normal. The crew had rescued two people at the request of Italian authorities and were asked to go to the port of Lampedusa. But they got a shock when they arrived: four coastguard boats escorted the Iuventa to the dock and awaiting media.

The crew did not find out they were under investigation until one year later. Now, almost five years since the Iuventa was seized, their odyssey in the Italian court system has begun. Last Sunday 21 defendants, four Iuventa crew and 17 other NGO workers took part in a preliminary hearing in Trapani, a process to decide if the case proceeds to a full trial. A decision is not expected for many months.

The activists are accused of colluding with people smugglers to ferry migrants to Europe. Yet an independent team of digital and oceanographic experts, who examined photos and videos, weather and ocean currents, found that images released by the prosecution in the Italian media had been taken out of context. A Iuventa rigid inflatable boat, alleged to be towing a vessel to Libya for reuse by smugglers in one photo, was shown to be moving north to Europe. In the prosecution’s case, "facts are not relied upon to establish a truthful account of events but to construct factual lies," concluded the investigation by London-based Forensic Architecture.

Francesca Cancellaro, a lawyer representing the four Iuventa defendants, described the case as unique, not only because of the length of the investigation, but also the use of undercover agents, "incredible" wiretapping activity and a trial that involves more than 20 defendants.

Gabriele Paci, Trapani’s prosecuting attorney, told media: "The work these organisations do to save people [at sea] is not being contested, but in some cases there are hypotheses... that there were agreements [made] with traffickers, which meant [the rescuers] then knew when and in which part of the sea [to find migrants]."

For observers, the case marks an alarming tendency to blame the rescuers and criminalise people seeking asylum or a better life in a part of the world less scarred by poverty, corruption and climate breakdown.

Many think the tide turned in 2014 when Italy ended its Mare Nostrum naval rescue mission. Since then, the EU has outsourced the issue. More than 84% of rescues in the central Mediterranean are now made by the EU-backed Libyan coastguard, which takes people back to Libyan detention centres, where aid agencies say they suffer beatings, sexual abuse and forced labour.

And the death toll rises: last year 1100 people died or went missing after leaving Libya. The Iuventa remains tied up in Trapani harbour. — Guardian News and Media

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