Four Tunisians among human trafficking suspects in Sicily

Eight people are facing trial on the island of Sicily on human trafficking charges as illegal immigrant numbers surge. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 20 May 2020

Four Tunisians among human trafficking suspects in Sicily

  • Eight face trial on the island as illegal immigrant numbers surge

ROME: Eight people, including Italian and Tunisian citizens, are facing trial in Sicily accused of illegally trafficking immigrants from North Africa.

According to prosecutors in Trapani, on Sicily’s western coast, illegal immigrants were forced to pay between €1,500 ($1,600) and €4,000 for the journey.

The trial is taking place as Italy faces a surge in immigrants from North Africa attempting to cross the Mediterranean following the arrival of warmer weather.

The eight suspects were charged following the “Sea Ghost” investigation carried out by finance police in the western Sicilian town of Marsala last July. The defendants are said to have criminal links to illegal immigration, human trafficking and cigarette smuggling.

Defendants include Angelo Licciardi, 60, believed to be the head of a criminal organization; Giuseppe Vasile, 63, a construction entrepreneur; and Giuseppa Randazzo, 47, a legal representative for an agricultural cooperative.

All three are from Marsala, which is 30 km from Mazara del Vallo, a fishing port with a large number of North African immigrants.

Tunisian nationals Montasar Bouaicha, 30, Nizar Zayar, 33, Fathi Taleb, 35, and Nabil Zayar, 37, are also facing trial, with Taleb and Zayar being tried in absentia.

At the first hearing, defense attorney Luigi Pipitone asked the court to scrap a ruling for an “immediate judgment” issued by a Palermo preliminary investigations judge.

Pipitone said that there was no clear evidence to justify the special proceeding, which does not include a preliminary hearing. The court is expected to rule on the issue on June 15.

Investigators said that the defendants allegedly referred to migrants transported from North Africa to Sicily as “lambs.”

Human traffickers used powerful motorboats and dinghies that carried up to 12 people and 300 kg of cigarettes per trip.

Migrants were often threatened with guns and knives, they said.

Investigators believe that Licciardi was in charge of the finances, and buying and maintaining the motorboats.

After the illegal immigrants reached Sicily, Randazzo produced fake job contracts to allow them to obtain or renew residency permits.

The Tunisian defendants sought out potential migrants in Tunisia and Algeria, according to investigators.

As Italy struggles to cope with a new wave of migrant arrivals amid the coronavirus emergency, an investigation published by an Italian newspaper, Avvenire, has accused Maltese armed forces of turning away a boat carrying migrants at gunpoint after giving them fuel and GPS coordinates to reach Sicily.

According to the newspaper, footage provided by an NGO shows a Maltese armed forces vessel refusing to rescue a dinghy carrying 101 asylum seekers in Maltese territorial waters, instead providing them with equipment to continue their journey to Italy.

Many of the migrants leapt into the water to try to reach the boat, mistakenly thinking they were being rescued.
The newspaper quoted one saying that the Maltese refused to take them to Malta as “everyone was sick from coronavirus.”

“They gave us red life vests, a new engine and fuel, and told us they would show us the route to Italy. Then they pointed guns at us and said: ‘We give you 30 minutes’,” the migrant said.

The migrants eventually made it to Pozzallo in Sicily on April 12.

Footage of the incident, initially sent to Alarm Phone, a migrant hotline service, is set to spark a row between Italy and Malta.

In early April, both countries declared their ports “unsafe” due to the pandemic and closed their borders to migrant landings.

As a result, boats carrying asylum seekers were left adrift in European search and rescue zones. An unknown number died at sea of dehydration or drowning.

When the overloaded dinghy carrying 101 migrants reached Pozzallo, there was surprise that such a small vessel with so many people aboard could make the 500 km trip from Libya.

India faces worst locust crisis in decades

Updated 05 June 2020

India faces worst locust crisis in decades

  • Indo-Pak border a breeding ground for bug; worst attack in over 20 years, says expert

NEW DELHI: Suresh Kumar was sipping tea on the balcony of his Jaipur house on Friday when the sun suddenly disappeared. Thinking it was probably a black cloud that was filtering out the daylight, he looked up and saw swarms of locusts covering the sky of the capital city of the western Indian state of Rajasthan.

Within a few minutes, short-horned grasshoppers were everywhere —walls, balconies and nearby trees — as they forced people to take refuge in their houses.

“It was unprecedented,” Kumar, who lives in Jaipur’s walled city area, told Arab News on Thursday. “Never before have I witnessed such a scene. Suddenly millions of aliens invaded our locality. Some residents of the neighborhood tried to bang some steel plates to shoo them off, but the jarring sound did not make much of an impact. However, the swarms left the area within an hour or so.”

More than a thousand kilometers away, in the Balaghat district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, farmer Dev Singh had a similar experience, although the bugs not only occupied his farmhouse, they destroyed the budding leaves of different kinds of pulses which he had sown in his field.

“Only a few weeks ago I harvested the wheat crop,” he told Arab News. “In a way, I’m lucky that the locusts have come now … otherwise the damage would have been much greater,” but he added that “with the pulse plant damaged in good measure, the yield will not be great this year.”

His area has been cleared of the locusts after the intervention of local authorities, which sprayed chemicals to kill the bugs and blared out sirens to shoo them off.

India is already grappling with an alarming surge of coronavirus cases and struggling to cope with the devastation caused by a recent cyclone. The country is also dealing with rising unemployment figures after more than 100 million people went jobless due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is facing security issues, too, in the form of a seething border dispute with China. The locust invasion has added to beleaguered India’s laundry list of woes.

Scientists said it was a serious crisis.

“This is the worst locust attack in more than two decades,” Dr. K. L. Gurjar, of the Faridabad-based Locust Warning Organization, told Arab News. “Compared to the past, these locusts are younger and have traveled a longer distance. This should be a cause of concern. The states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh will be badly impacted. We are controlling and containing the situation on a daily basis.”

According to media reports, around 50,000 hectares of farmland have been destroyed by desert locusts in the two states during the last four weeks.

“The problem will persist until the invasion of swarms continues from across the border in Pakistan and Iran. The Indo-Pak border has become the breeding ground for the bug,” Gurjar added.

But he remained hopeful that the country would get rid of the menace through its measures, despite the present danger.

“There is a danger of locusts remaining alive for a longer period, though we are hopeful to ultimately sort them out.”

The Jawaharlal Nehru Agriculture University (JNAU) of Jabalpur has also been monitoring the situation in Madhya Pradesh, noting that locusts damage the crop completely wherever they go.

“Desert locusts stay immobile throughout the night and their movement begins again in the morning and they fly along the direction of the wind,” JNAU’s Dr. Om Gupta told Arab News. “Wherever they find shelter, they damage the crops in totality. In some areas, locusts have created havoc.”

She added that spray was generally used in the evening or early morning to kill the bugs. “They breed very fast and we focus on killing their eggs. What we are dealing with is nothing short of a catastrophe, and we are not going to get respite from this anytime soon.”