Italy: Criminalising solidarity - Cap Anamur trial underway (1)

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The trial of Elias Bierdel, Vladimir Dachkevitce and Stefan Schmidt, respectively president of the German NGO Cap Anamur, and captain and first officer on the ship bearing the same name that saved 37 African shipwreck victims between Libya and Lampedusa in June 2004, began on 27 November 2006 in Agrigento (Sicily), in whose province the ship docked on 12 July 2004. The three accused were arrested on arrival and face charges of committing serious offences to favour illegal immigration by rescuing migrants who were at the sea's mercy in a dinghy before transporting them into Italian territorial waters and landing after over two weeks spent at sea awaiting permission to land, amid a shortage of supplies and threats from the migrants that they would jump into the sea, and worsening physical and psychological conditions experienced by both migrants and crew members.

The hearing held on 15 January 2007 saw two witnesses from the port authority of Porto Empedocle, where the ship finally docked, confirming that the behaviour of the ship's captain and crew was proper, in compliance with instructions issued by the port authority. The claims contradicted allegations made by police, customs police and carabinieri officers in previous hearings that the Cap Anamur had attempted to ram military vessels that were blocking its access to Porto Empedocle, a theory that was dismissed during the trial's preliminary hearing and belied by transcripts of radio communications between the ship and port authority and by video recordings of the ship's entrance in the harbour. The allegations appear to be a deliberate attempt to undermine the defendants' position, in view of the fact that the ship had been conducted into the harbour with a pilot from the port authority on board.

When the ship had requested permission to dock, providing a list of the names and presumed nationality of the rescued migrants (Sudanese), it initially received permission from the port authority on 30 June 2004, which was later revoked by the then Interior Minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, who had authority to do so in application of an inter-ministerial order to combat illegal immigration. He also denied the ship permission to enter Italian territorial waters. In spite of their having been rescued in international waters, and of the migrants having expressed their wish to apply for asylum before disembarking, they were treated as "illegal migrants", without due scrutiny of their applications. The case sparked a diplomatic incident, as Italy unsuccessfully attempted to pass on responsibility for examining possible asylum applications to Malta (where the dinghy had reportedly stopped to repair an engine and in whose territorial waters the Cap Anamur was deemed to have passed after picking up the migrants) under the terms of the Dublin Convention, and to Germany, considering the ship to be German territory in view of its nationality.

On arrival, the migrants were issued with expulsion orders and detained in Agrigento's detention centre. Members of human rights organisations, including the refugee rights group Consorzio Italiano per i Rifugiati (CIR), which sought to formalise the passengers' asylum applications, were unable to intervene. The ship was confiscated on arrival and returned to the association, which has been active since 1979 and has saved the lives of thousands of refugees and boat people all over the world to date, on 28 February 2005.

After transfers to centri di permanenza temporanea (CPTs, detention centres for immigrants), first in Agrigento (the San Benedetto CPT was closed months later after a damning report from the Committee for the prevention of torture), then in Caltanissetta (Pian del Lago) and finally in Rome (Ponte Galeria) from where they were deported, and a summary identification by an ad hoc commission involving officials from the Ghanaian and Nigerian consulates, 35 of them were hurriedly expelled (30 to Ghana and 5 to Nigeria), before the appea

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