Captain of rescue boat faces 20 years in jail if convicted of illegally aiding migration in the Mediterranean

Nick Squires
Rescue boat captain Pia Klemp could face 20 years in prison after being accused of illegally aiding migration in the Mediterranean - Paul Lovis Wagner

The female captain of a rescue vessel that saved the lives of hundreds of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean faces up to 20 years in an Italian prison on charges of allegedly aiding illegal migration.

Pia Klemp, who is German, is a member of Sea Watch, an NGO which deploys vessels to rescue asylum seekers trying to escape Libya and reach Europe by boat.

More than 80,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the charges against her to be dropped.

Sea Watch is one of several charities which has had its operations drastically curtailed by the policies of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, who a year ago decreed that NGO boats should not be allowed into Italian ports.

Campaigners say that the policy, and the trial that looms for Ms Klemp, is part of the increasing “criminalisation” of legitimate search and rescue efforts off the coast of North Africa.

Migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by an NGO Credit: Paul Lovis Wagner

Italian prosecutors are investigating allegations of aiding and abetting illegal migration but have not yet set a date for a trial.

They allege that Ms Klemp and the crew colluded with smugglers to collect migrants at rendezvous points in the Mediterranean.

“She is of course very worried,” Ruben Neugebauer, a spokesman for Sea Watch, told The Telegraph. “It’s a very heavy accusation and she faces up to 20 years in jail. She and the crew were simply following the International Law of the Sea. But the situation in Italy and in Europe as a whole means that it takes courage to do that now.”

Ms Klemp, 35, has said that if convicted in Italy, she would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

She told Basler Zeitung, a Swiss newspaper: “We have only followed international law, where the highest priority is to save people in distress.”

She is concerned that she could face a “show trial” that under Italy’s glacially slow judicial system could go on for years.

She and the crew have been under investigation since their ship was impounded by Italian authorities two years ago.

Migrants rescued by the NGO Sea Watch off the coast of North Africa Credit: Paul Lovis Wagner

The populist government in Rome ramped up its fight against NGO organisations on Tuesday, with the cabinet passing a new security decree under which rescue vessels can be fined up to €50,000 if they enter Italian waters or try to reach an Italian port.

The measures have been criticised by the UN’s refugee agency. “Saving lives at sea constitutes a humanitarian imperative and an obligation under international law,” UNHCR said. “No ship and no captain should be punished for having saved boats in difficulty.”

Medecins Sans Frontieres said that in the year since Mr Salvini closed Italy’s ports, at least 1,150 migrants have died at sea and more than 10,000 have been forcibly returned to Libya.

“Fining the captain or the ship owner of a search and rescue vessel is like fining an ambulance taking patients to hospital,” said Claudia Lodesani, the president of MSF Italy.

“Instead of working together with other European states to create a proactive and adequate search and rescue system, the Italian government criminalises sea rescue.”

Merchant vessels are increasingly reluctant to come to the rescue of sinking migrant boats because they know that they will be denied access to European ports and have to look after the asylum seekers on board for an indefinite period.

“Increasingly, merchant vessels are not responding to distress cases,” said MrNeugebauer of Sea Watch.

On Wednesday, Sea Watch rescued 52 people from a sinking rubber dinghy about 50 miles off the Libyan coast.

Mr Salvini called the rescue vessel “a pirate ship” and said it would be denied entry to Italian waters. “We can’t wait to use the new measures passed under the security decree,” he said.