ROME: The captain of an Italian-flagged ship has been sentenced to a year in prison for forcing more than 100 migrants back to Libya.
The verdict came at the end of a nearly year-long trial in the first case of its kind in Italy, with legal experts considering it a landmark in Italian legislation.
Seamen, representatives from the coast guard and NGOs, diplomats, and Italian parliamentarians were called to testify in front of judges.
“It confirms that Libya cannot be recognized as a safe landing place for migrants,” wrote Nello Scavo, a journalist from the Avvenire Catholic daily newspaper who broke the story with exclusive footage in 2018. “From now on, any civilian ship involved in push backs to that country may face trial and conviction in Italy.”
The captain of the Asso 28 supply ship and a representative of Augusta Offshore, the company that owns the ship, were found guilty of violating international laws forbidding the forced return of people to countries where they are at risk.
Naples prosecutors Barbara Aprea and Giuseppe Tittaferrante said that on July 30, 2018, the Italian ship rescued 101 migrants near an oil and gas rig in international waters between Italy and Libya, before taking them to a Tripoli port and handing them to the Libyan coast guard.
They were rescued from an unseaworthy dinghy near the Sabratha platform, which is operated by Mellitah Oil & Gas, a consortium of Libya’s National Oil Corporation and Italy’s ENI.
Five children and five pregnant women were among those saved. Prosecutors said that no call was made to Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, despite the rescue occurring within Italian jurisdiction.
The Augusta Offshore company claimed that the rescue was coordinated by the “Marine Department of Sabratha,” in conjunction with a representative of the Libyan coast guard who boarded the Asso 28.
But Italian prosecutors found no trace of this department’s existence or any evidence that Libyan authorities were alerted.
Prosecutors in Naples produced audio recordings of radio contact between the Asso 28 and an Open Arms charity rescue vessel, which requested details about the location and condition of the migrants.
"I am happy that justice has been established in Naples. Judges stated with their verdict that solidarity and humanity are not a crime,” MP Nicola Fratoianni, from the far left party Sinistra Italiana, told Arab News. He was on board the NGO ship during the rescue and said Open Arms had warned the Asso 28 that returning the migrants to Libya was illegal.
“Evidently this verdict states that Libya is not a safe haven, and that entrusting castaways to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard is not the right choice, indeed it is probably a crime. Nobody can forget that there are rules and laws in defense of human beings and their dignity,” he said.
“I am happy with what justice has established in Naples. Solidarity and humanity are not a crime. Now we all must work to break the silence on the tragedies, drownings and deaths, but also the illegal returns which happen in the Mediterranean against international law. We owe this to all those who lost their lives trying to reach Italy in order to build a better life in Europe.”