New legal step for NGOs accused of collusion with migrant smugglers

It is a complex and politically undermined dossier which testifies to the legal risks and dilemmas faced by NGOs in the face of the tragedy of migrants in the Mediterranean. An Italian judge will have to decide whether or not to hold a trial against several organizations, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). They are suspected of collusion with Libyan smugglers as part of their rescue activities. The hearing begins Saturday May 21 in Trapani, Sicily and could last several months. The investigation is the subject of much criticism, due to massive wiretapping of humanitarians, lawyers and journalists. Critics point to a politically motivated attempt to criminalize rescue operations at sea.

Rescue in the Mediterranean: three NGOs facing Italian justice

Twenty-one suspects, including crew members of MSF ships, Save the Children and the German NGO Jugend Rettet, are accused of“Assistance and incitement to irregular entry into Italy” in 2016 and 2017. The investigation would have demonstrated the coordination of their actions with traffickers near the Libyan coast, leading them to collect people whose lives were not in danger.

“Our crews have rescued more than 14,000 people in distress on makeshift and overcrowded boats (…) and we are now facing twenty years in prison”said before the hearing Kathrin Schmidt who was a member of the crew of the Iuventa de Jugend Rettet.

“Criminalization of humanitarian aid”

Rescuers assure that anyone who ventures to cross the Mediterranean on a makeshift boat to Europe is in danger and must be saved. At least 12,000 people have perished since 2014 on this route where many shipwrecks are not listed. The NGOs deny having ever communicated with smugglers, who are sometimes armed and can be seen prowling around rescue sites in the hope of recovering the engines of migrant boats.

L’ONG Save the Children “firmly rejects” the accusations. MSF denounces “an era of criminalization of humanitarian aid” hoping for its near end. La Iuventa had been seized in 2017 shortly after the refusal of Jugend Rettet and other organizations to sign a “code of conduct” imposed by the Ministry of the Interior, at a time when the European Union was increasing its surveillance in the Mediterranean.

“Despite the fact that mobile phones and computers were confiscated and analyzed, not a single contact with Libyan traffickers (…) was discovered”, says Nicola Canestrini, lawyer for the crew members of the Iuventa. The hearings are taking place behind closed doors, but representatives of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Amnesty International have asked the judge for permission to attend.

An NGO boat blocked by Italian justice

– Accusations of an ex-policeman –

Allison West, legal adviser for the ECCHR, condemned “inadequate investigative practices” in the investigation led by prosecutors more accustomed to Mafia crimes. The investigation was opened after accusations against NGOs made in October 2016 to the Italian secret services by a former policeman, Pietro Gallo, working for security on the Vos Hestia ship of Save the Children, explained to AFP Me Canestrini. He had, with another ex-policeman, also sent these accusations to the Italian sovereignist and anti-migrant leader Matteo Salvini, leader of the League (far right) and then to the police. Mr. Gallo later said in an interview that he regretted his action. Asked if he had witnessed any contact between NGOs and traffickers, he replied: “no never “.

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