16th Aug 2022

Rescue crew face 20 years jail for saving migrants

  • Iuventa has been impounded in Sicily since 2017 (Photo: iuventa-Crew)
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Four defendants who saved several hundred people from drowning in three different rescues in the Mediterranean Sea now risk lengthy jail time in Italy.

Among them is Kathrin Schmidt.

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Along with three other defendants, she will soon be facing a judge in Sicily for having worked on the impounded civil rescue boat Iuventa.

"We are now facing 20 years in prison," she told reporters on Tuesday (17 May).

On Saturday, they will attend a preliminary hearing at the Tribunal of Trapani in Sicily.

The judge could throw the case out. But it may also go to trial in a case that has seen Italian authorities wiretap the Iuventa crew, journalists, and lawyers.

The four, as well as 17 other people, have been charged with facilitating unauthorised entry, a criminal act outlined in a more than two-decade old Italian immigration law.

Médecins sans Frontières, Save the Children, and a private shipping company, aslo face charges.

The case points to a wider criminalisation and crack down on people who prevent migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from dying in their efforts to reach Europe.

For Schmidt, the fact that over 22,000 have perished in the Mediterranean over the past eight years, speaks volumes of a system that ignores the immediate plight of those making the perilous journey.

"Sea rescue can never be a crime," she said.

"What we also consider a crime is to condemn people to death by failure to render assistance at sea," she said.

Italian authorities seized the Iuventa in 2017, where it has since remained impounded at the port in Trapani.

They charged the crew following three sea rescue operations, which took place in September 2016 and June 2017.

The prosecution claims the people rescued were not in imminent danger and that the crew had coordinated with smugglers.

Police had also seized mobile phones and computers but were unable to provide any evidence that the crew had collaborated with Libyan people smugglers, says Nicola Canestrini, defence lawyer of the Iuventa crew.

"The core problem of this trial is the problem of solidarity," said Canestrini.

"We think that solidarity is not only not a crime, but it's not even a right. It's legal duty," he said.

The pressure to prosecute came under Marco Minniti, Italy's then minister of interior.

In June 2017, he told European lawmakers that the Mediterranean had become Europe's biggest graveyard.

But he also said civil rescue boats were not a response to what he described as a "structural problem".

"We can't thank them enough for saving lives at sea, the problem is more of technical and political nature," he said.

The assertion has led to numerous prosecutions.

Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain have collectively launched 59 proceedings against civil rescue boats between 2016 and 2021.

Elisa De Pieri of Amnesty International says most prosecutions have ended in acquittal or were quashed by courts.

"It is scandalous that rescue workers have ended up in courtrooms at all," she said, in a statement.

People helping migrants 'increasingly persecuted in EU'

A new report has found a dramatic increase in the number of criminal and administrative cases against people who help migrants. The report comes as a number of sea-rescue activists face up to 25 years in prison in Greece.

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The Libyan Coast Guard intercepted a wooden boat of 30 people some 10 nautical miles inside Malta's search and rescue zone. But then suddenly let them go, allowing the Ocean Viking to perform its first rescue since leaving Marseille.

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Libyan police lieutenant: 'Coast guard are smugglers'

The Libyan coast guard actively works with smugglers and are run by a militia, an ex-Libyan lieutenant police officer. The EU is buying the guard three new P150 high speed patrol boats.

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The migration 'pull-factor' claim - debunked

Empirical evidence shows rescue operations at sea are not a pull-factor. But that suspicion has underpinned a campaign to criminalise NGO actions. Eight legal cases were launched this year alone, bringing the total caseload to 58.

Lampedusa: The invisible migrant crisis at Europe's gate

Last weekend, Italy's Lampedusa island was again making headlines for being overrun with migrants. But, paradoxically, the crisis was more visible from TV news bulletins and social media than from the ground.

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