‘It’s a never-ending nightmare’: crew of refugee rescue ship facing jail

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<span>Photograph: Andreas Solaro/Getty</span>
Photograph: Andreas Solaro/Getty

The crew of the Iuventa rescue ship has been credited with saving 14,000 lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Yet far from being feted for their life-saving work, four of the rescuers appeared in court in Italy this weekend on charges carrying a possible 20-year jail sentence.

“It feels like a never-ending nightmare,” campaigner Kathrin Schmidt told the Observer ahead of a preliminary hearing on Saturday in a court in the Sicilian coastal town of Trapani. “Everybody knows the pictures and videos of these already unseaworthy, but then overcrowded rubber boats… Stating that there is no necessity to rescue these people is a crime in itself.”

More than 24,000 people who attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe since 2014 are dead or missing, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Most drowned; some died from lack of water and or shelter under the scorching sun; the fate of others remains unknown, the worst presumed. “If this doesn’t constitute a state of necessity, then what else would you do?” Schmidt asked.

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Schmidt was an occupational therapist, but changed direction in 2015, the year more than a million people came to Europe seeking asylum. She never set out to run a search-and-rescue boat but, in 2016, became team leader on the Iuventa. The crew were trained to be quick and efficient dealing with men, women and children, who might be panicking, sick or injured on overcrowded boats.

Faced with the urgency of rescue, there was no time for personal reflection. “I would look at the boat,” recounted Schmidt. “How much longer will it be stable? From what side do we need to approach? What is the wind and water doing? How many life jackets do we have? There are so many questions you have to answer in your head like that.”

On 2 August 2017 everything seemed normal. The crew had rescued two people at the request of Italian authorities and were asked to go to the port of Lampedusa. But they got a shock when they arrived: four coastguard boats with flashing blue lights escorted the Iuventa to the dock and awaiting media scrum. “None of us expected that. It was very surreal,” Schmidt said.

The crew did not find out they were under investigation until one year later. Now, almost five years since the Iuventa was seized, their odyssey in the Italian court system has begun. Yesterday, On Saturday, 21 defendants, four Iuventa crew and 17 other NGO workers took part in a preliminary hearing in Trapani, a process to decide if the case proceeds to a full trial. Given the number of defendants and different languages, a decision is not expected for many months.

The activists are accused of colluding with people smugglers to ferry migrants to Europe. Yet an independent team of digital and oceanographic experts, who examined photos and videos, weather and ocean currents, found that images released by the prosecution in the Italian media had been taken out of context. A Iuventa rigid inflatable boat, alleged to be towing a vessel to Libya for reuse by smugglers in one photo, was shown to be moving north to Europe. In the case for the prosecution, “facts are not relied upon to establish a truthful account of events but to construct factual lies,” concluded the investigation by London-based Forensic Architecture, which has been submitted to the Italian courts.

Francesca Cancellaro, a lawyer representing the four Iuventa defendants, described the case as unique, not only because of the length of the investigation, but also the use of undercover agents, “incredible” wiretapping activity and a trial that involves more than 20 defendants. “I am quite confident that we will show their full innocence,” she said. “We are talking about people who are involved in rescue operations. They respect the obligation that comes from the law of the sea: the duty to rescue people in distress.”

Asked to comment, Gabriele Paci, Trapani’s prosecuting attorney, told the Observer: “The work these organisations do to save people [at sea] is not being contested, but in some cases there are hypotheses, which need to be evaluated by the judge, that there were agreements [made] with traffickers, which meant [the rescuers] then knew when and in which part of the sea [to find migrants]. This is something you can’t do.

Humanitarian organisations aren’t in doubt but there is certain behaviour Italy forbids and which constitutes a crime

Gabriele Paci, prosecuting attorney

“We’re not putting into doubt organisations who do humanitarian work but there is certain behaviour that Italy forbids and which constitutes a crime.”

For observers, the case marks an alarming tendency to blame the rescuers and criminalise people seeking asylum, or simply a better life in a prosperous part of the world less scarred by poverty, corruption and the effects of climate breakdown.

Cornelia Ernst, a German MEP in the left-wing Die Linke party, said she was “strongly concerned” that the criminalisation of people on the move and those supporting them was intensifying all over Europe. “The case of the crew of the Iuventa, who are on trial for fulfilling their duty to rescue lives, at sea is outrageous. Civil search-and-rescue organisations, NGOs and volunteers step in because the European Union shamefully fails to act again and again.”

Many think the tide turned in 2014 when Italy ended its Mare Nostrum naval rescue mission, leaving in its place a narrower EU-funded border surveillance operation. Since then, the EU has outsourced the issue. More than 84% of rescues in the central Mediterranean are now conducted by the EU-backed Libyan coastguard, which takes people back to Libyan detention centres, where aid agencies say they suffer beatings, sexual abuse and forced labour.

Meanwhile, the death toll rises: last year 1,100 people died or went missing after leaving Libya. And the Iuventa remains tied up in Trapani harbour.

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