The Tribunal of Tripani, Italy Saturday began preliminary hearings against the migrant rescue ship Iuventa’s crew. According to the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the crew is accused of “facilitating illegal entry” of migrants to Italy, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. ECCHR criticized the hearings, stating:
Equating civil rescue with aiding and abetting human smuggling is a gross attempt to weaponize laws meant to protect vulnerable people on the move. Civil society stepped in because national and European authorities fail to fulfil their international obligations in the Mediterranean. This case exemplifies an alarming trend of criminalizing vital human rights defense
Authorities requested that the non-profit Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) appear at the preliminary hearings due to its role in rescuing migrants. Bertrand Draguez, President of MSF Belgium and legal representative for MSF, expressed confidence in the legality of MSF’s actions, saying, “[w]e always worked with the sole objective of saving lives, in full transparency and in compliance with international regulations, and we are sure the proceeding will confirm this.”
The case has concerned many human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Alarm Phone. A joint report from ARCI Porco Rosso and Alarm Phone, in collaboration with Borderline Sicilia and Borderline-Europe, titled from Sea to Prison, stated:
While the figure of the boat driver has been demonized in Italy as the villain of migration, the person responsible for tragedies at Sea, the analysis in this report shows the truth of the matter: it is the criminalization of the act of boat driving that contributes to these tragedies far more than the boat drivers themselves.
The Iuventa has rescued over 14,000 migrants from incidents at sea between 2016 and 2017. In August, 2017, the ship was seized by the Italian government, halting any further rescue efforts. According to the United Nations, at least 16,000 migrants have lost their lives on the Italian coast since 2014. The actual number is likely higher due to difficulties in record keeping.