Migrant rescuers vindicated after Italy court drops trafficking charges

SICILY - An Italian court threw out charges Friday against crew members of migrant rescue ships, ending a controversial case seven years after the government accused them of colluding with traffickers.

Crew members of the "Iuventa" charity ship, operated by German NGO Jugend Rettet, announced that the court in Trapani, Sicily had "(cleared) all defendants following a seven-year odyssey".

"This case stands as the longest, most expensive, and most extensive proceedings against SAR (Search-and-Rescue) NGOs, including two years of preliminary hearing with over 40 hearings," the Iuventa crew members said in a statement.  

The court on Friday followed the surprise recommendation by prosecutors in February to dismiss all charges in the long-running case that rights groups have slammed as politically motivated. 

Triggered by a tip-off by an ex-policeman on board and marked by the wire-tapping of lawyers and journalists, the case has been highlighted as an extreme example of efforts by European governments to thwart NGOs helping migrants at sea.

Following the court's decision, the Iuventa crew members expressed "profound concern over the irreparable damage inflicted by the investigation and trial".

"The Iuventa case marked the onset of a public smear campaign against civil sea rescue, aimed at legitimising crackdowns on rescue efforts," it said. 


- Migrant surge -

Italian authorities began to focus in on the rescue workers in 2016, as Rome's then centre-left government grappled with a double-digit percentage increase in the number of migrants reaching its shores.

About 181,000 migrants landed in Italy that year, as part of a wider surge that saw more than two million asylum-seekers enter the EU, many from war-torn Syria and Afghanistan.

A former policeman working as a security contractor on Save the Children's Vos Hestia ship first reported allegations that the charities were working with people traffickers.

Police placed an undercover agent on the ship, while investigators wire-tapped charity workers, lawyers and journalists -- a move that sparked outrage when it became public.

Charges were eventually brought in 2021 against 21 individuals from the Iuventa and from the Vos Hestia and Vos Prudence ships operated by Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

After the case was split into various separate proceedings last year, eight crew members and two ship captains remained as individual defendants in the case before the court Friday. 

Three entities -- Save the Children, MSF and the shipping company that owned two chartered vessels -- were similarly charged.

Accused of facilitating illegal immigration from Libya to Italy in 2016 and 2017, the defendants risked up to 20 years in prison.

They were accused of coordinating their search-and-rescue actions with human traffickers off Libya, returning dinghies and boats to them to be reused, and of rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean whose lives were not in danger.

The Iuventa ship itself, which was seized in 2017, remains "abandoned, plundered and largely demolished" at the port of Trapani, its operator has said, despite a December 2022 court ruling to return it to its original condition.

- 'Criminalisation' of rescue workers -

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even the UN's Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders had all criticised Italy for its "criminalisation" of volunteer migrant rescue workers, and for due process violations against defendants.

"As a result of a flawed investigation driven by political motives, thousands of people have died in the Mediterranean or forcibly returned to war-torn Libya," said one of the Iuventa defendants, Sascha Girke, following Friday's ruling.

He called the case "a glaring symbol of the strategies European governments are putting in place" to prevent migrant arrivals.

The tough stance against migrant rescue NGOs has accelerated under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's hard-right government, which accuses the ships of encouraging people traffickers.

Rome has limited ships to one sea rescue at a time, and forces them to dock at an assigned port -- rules the charities say have severely curtailed rescues.

The government has also renewed a controversial EU-endorsed deal between Italy and the UN-backed Libyan government in Tripoli signed in 2017.

Under that deal, Italy provides training and funding to the Libyan coastguard to stem departures of migrants and fight traffickers. 

By Alexandria Sage

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