Italian ship captain sentenced after sending migrants to Libya

ROME (AP) – A court in Naples has found the captain of an Italian commercial vessel guilty of abandonment charges for returning 101 migrants rescued at sea to Libya in 2018, in a decision hailed by civil society organizations. defense of human rights.

But the court absolved the captain of the most serious charge – abuse of power – and sentenced him to one year in prison, according to a copy of the sentence and the Avvenire newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference.

The UN Refugee Agency and the European Union do not view Libya as a safe port, making the forced return of refugees, especially unaccompanied minors, a possible violation of their rights to protection and claim asylum.

The verdict delivered on Wednesday by Neapolitan judge Maria Luisa Miranda, first reported by Avvenire, was the first of its kind in Italy. It follows a 2012 verdict against Italy by the European Court of Human Rights after Italian military ships returned migrants to Tripoli in 2009.

The case brought before the Naples court concerned the rescue, on July 30, 2018, of 101 migrants by the Asso Ventotto, an Italian oil rig supply vessel that worked for the company Mellitah Oil and Gas, a joint venture of the Italian ENI and the Libyan National Oil Corp. , on the Sabratha oil platform north of Tripoli.

At the time, the ship’s operator, Naples-based Augusta Offshore, said Asso Ventotto received a call from the Libyan Coast Guard to respond to an inflatable boat carrying migrants about 1.5 miles away. the platform. After being rescued, Augusta said, the migrants did not protest when they were transferred to a Libyan coast guard ship and returned to Tripoli, the nearest port.

But Italian prosecutors said instructions to bring the migrants back to Tripoli came from the oil rig, which the captain only contacted coastguard offices in Tripoli or Rome after he started heading towards Tripoli and that the Asso Ventotto itself docked in Tripoli after disembarking the migrants on a Libyan ship that brought them ashore, according to a court document summarizing the prosecutors’ case.

Prosecutors said the crew, who had been joined on board by a Libyan oil rig official, had never identified the migrants, nor verified their status – five were pregnant – or whether they wanted the asylum.

The ship’s captain, Giuseppe Sotgiu, was acquitted of one charge of abuse of power but was found guilty of two more counts relating to the abandonment of minors and vulnerable people, according to Avvenire and the request for sentencing prosecutors.

Another defendant was acquitted of all charges.

In 2018, Italy had a tough, anti-migrant government with League leader Matteo Salvini as interior minister and deputy prime minister.

The conviction, if upheld on appeal, could have broad political implications for Italy and the EU as aid groups have long denounced their continued financial support for the Libyan Coast Guard to patrol its borders and bring it ashore migrants who try to move north.

In a sign of the political sensitivity of the case, prosecutors declined to comment, and the calls and email to Augusta were not immediately returned.

Riccardo Noury, spokesperson for Amnesty International’s Italian office, said the conviction was important because it established for the first time in Italy that a commercial vessel was “an accomplice in an international crime” by returning migrants to Libya .

While noting that the verdict will certainly be appealed, he said it could set a precedent and has already sent a message that “if other civilian or commercial vessels do the same, they can be tried. and condemned “.

Left-wing lawmaker Nicola Fratoianni was aboard the Open Arms humanitarian rescue ship the day the Asso Ventotto rescue took place and was present when Open Arms attempted to determine what was happening nearby.

He followed the case closely and said on Facebook that the conviction marked an important precedent: “No human being is illegal. Solidarity is not a crime. Everyone has the right to a life of dignity.


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