Lawfare on solidarity at sea: The Mediterranean rescuers facing trial
‘Instead of sea rescuers being charged for saving lives, Italian and European politicians should be charged with crimes against humanity’
On 1 March 2021, an Italian prosecutor in Trapani closed a lengthy investigation into the work of civil rescuers in the Mediterranean Sea. Charged with “aiding and abetting illegal immigration to Italy”, 21 members of the charities Jugend Rettet, Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders face trial. Among them are members of the civil rescue ship, Iuventa, who have helped rescue more than 14,000 people in distress. The crew, known as the ‘Iuventa10’, have been under investigation since August 2017, following the seizure of the ship at the port of Lampedusa. If found guilty, they could face considerable time in prison.
The allegations against the maritime activists rest in part on evidence collected by a secret recording device placed on the Iuventa, wiretapped phones, as well as statements of employees of a private security company who had been employed as security guards on another civil rescue ship, the Vos Hestia, chartered by Save the Children. Pietro Gallo, one of the private security agents who passed information on to AISE, the Italian intelligence service, and to Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-Right Lega party, later regretted his involvement and suggested that the allegations against the rescuers were unfounded. The Italian prosecutor’s case is also informed by an undercover police officer installed among the private security guards on the Vos Hestia.
The Iuventa10, who have received international recognition and human rights awards for their life-saving work, deny all allegations of collaboration with smugglers. They regard the investigation in Italy as an act of ‘lawfare’, the misuse of existing laws to further Europe’s anti-migrant policies and to criminalise and intimidate humanitarian rescuers. In a statement, the activists claim the charges are “a political declaration of intent to criminalise solidarity”. As one of Iuventa10’s lawyers told me, “Instead of sea rescuers being charged for saving lives, Italian and European politicians should be charged with crimes against humanity. It is really the world upside down, and we will make it right.”
The Italian investigation, which lasted for nearly four years, has focused on two dates, 10 September 2016 and 18 June 2017, during which the Iuventa10 allegedly became implicated in “aiding and abetting illegal immigration”. After reconstructing the events unfolding on these days, the research collective Forensic Oceanography at Goldsmiths University concluded that none of the allegations levied against the rescuers had legs to stand on.
Laura Martin, a now 27-year-old from Manchester, was on board the Iuventa in June 2017. Wanting no part in what she called “the cold-hearted Europe that treats people on the move as less than human”, she joined Iuventa’s rescue operation off the coast of Libya – in what she described as “a practical middle finger to the lack of state support for those on the move”. She said: “We see these people, we see their deaths. They are real people, dying real deaths, and if you don’t give them the support they need then we will try, and we will be loud.”
Responding to the charges put forward by the Italian prosecutor, though fortunately not directed against herself, she claimed the allegations as being fabricated. “I just want to say to them: ‘hey, I was out there, I know exactly what happened! Do you know what is happening out there? Do you know how many people died there during these days? How dare you try to spread this misinformation?’”
Laura, at the time Iuventa’s rescue team leader, remembers several calm days in June 2017 before a period of constant rescues and days with no sleep while Iuventa’s crew supported migrant boats carrying about 3,800 people. “Whenever there are people in the water without life jackets, my heart is in my throat, anticipating the worst happening,” she said.
While no life was lost on the contested day of 18 June, the following days turned increasingly desperate, and deadly. “At sea, we would follow a trail of debris and items of clothing. A flip-flop, a pair of shorts, an empty water bottle, a scarf. These items would lead us to drowned people. Bodies of drowned children, drowned men, drowned pregnant women.”
I just want to say to them: ‘I was there, I know what happened. Do you know how many people died? How dare you try to spread this misinformation?'
Since being impounded in 2017, the repurposed fishing trawler Iuventa has not returned to the deadly stretch off the coast of Libya and the death rate for boat migration across the central Mediterranean Sea has steadily increased since. Laura sees a direct correlation between the rising body count at sea and the harassment and criminalisation of sea rescuers: “Legal processes are being used to create a stalemate for search and rescue activists. It is lawfare! While there is this trial, the Iuventa remains in chains. There is blood on the hands of the Italian authorities.”
Laura has moved her life-saving efforts to land and is currently enrolled as a medical student. She would return to search and rescue activism in the Mediterranean in a heartbeat but wants to become a doctor first, to be better prepared to help. Working as a health care assistant in the NHS Wales, Laura fears that the COVID-19 crisis has heightened the danger of people being led “down the ‘them versus us’ path. There is always a reason and excuse to act without humanity and to act with hostility. If it is not COVID, it is not enough jobs, not enough wages in the economy to go round, it is health care services stretched, homelessness on the streets.”
“But if you look at this at face value, there is only one constant in all of these excuses: that’s the people offering them: our governments. It is far easier to draw attention and blame to some far away migrant on a boat, who cannot complain, cannot answer back than it is to accept responsibility. When the attention is on asylum-seekers and migrants, it is not on politicians giving £30bn healthcare contracts to their pub mates. It is not on the UK having the second-highest proportional COVID-19 mortality rate in the world! Migration remains a scapegoat for our political shortcomings, and the criminalisation of solidarity is masking this.”
Get our weekly email