13 July 2020
Over the Easter weekend, 12 people died and 51 were 'pulled back' to Libya in a case where a vessel in distress lay within the Maltese SAR zone and on the fringe of Italy's territorial waters for hours, but no action was taken by Maltese or Italian authorities to conduct a rescue. Human rights group submitted a criminal complaint earlier this month, demanding that the possible complicity of the Italian authorities be investigated.
"A group of human rights activists and lawyers took their case to prosecutors to a court in Rome on Thursday, asking them to determine whether the Italian authorities were complicit in an incident involving a migrant boat at Easter, in which 12 people drowned and the 51 survivors were taken back to Libya.
Since the events over the Easter weekend this year, human rights activists have been trying to get the authorities to shoulder some responsibility for what happened to a boat originally carrying 63 migrants, which, after drifting for five days, was picked up by a fishing boat and taken back to Libya. It transpired that 12 of those on board died during that time. Deaths that activists say could have been avoided if the responsible authorities had acted more quickly on information provided to them about the boat's whereabouts by organizations like Alarm Phone.
Activists in Malta already filed two police reports against the Maltese authorities in mid-April because the incident took place in the Maltese search and rescue zone. They alleged criminal inaction on the part of Malta's Prime Minister Robert Abela and the head of the armed forces, reports the news agency AFP. They were both cleared of wrongdoing following a magisterial inquiry in Malta."
The InfoMigrants article is largely based on the statement published by Nuovi Desaparecidos:
Pasquetta massacre. Italian responsibilities: submission to the Public Prosecutor's Office of Rome (lightly-edited machine translation of the Italian original, available here)
On the days of Easter 2020, between 10 and 15 April, in the waters of the Maltese SAR zone, the umpteenth tragedy of immigration in the Mediterranean took place: 12 dead people (ten Eritreans and two Ethiopians) and 51 other refugees, including two very young children, brought back against their will to Libya, where they were imprisoned in the Tarek al Sika detention centre, one of the most infamous camps in Tripoli and the whole of Tripolitania.
For these victims - in addition to thousands of other broken lives and young people consigned to unspeakable suffering in the underworld of Libya - the Truth and Justice Committee for the New Disappeared (in the person of President Arturo Salerni and coordinator Emilio Drudi), the Fundacion Open Arms (Oscar Camps), The Associazione Open Arms Italia (Riccardo Gatti), Senator Gregorio De Falco, Flore Murard Yovanovitch, lawyers Alessandra Ballerini, Emiliano Benzi and Stefano Greco have filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor's Office at the Court of Rome asking to ascertain any Italian liability.
Two unexplained facts immediately emerged from the reconstruction of the case, which suggest conduct such as to constitute a concrete hypothesis of crime and violation of international law:
1 - The enormous delay of the rescue operations: 5 days passed before the first concrete intervention was recorded.
2 - The deportation of the shipwrecked people to Libya, a country that certainly cannot be defined as a "safe port" and which, moreover, is almost 150 miles from the point where the dinghy was in difficulty with the 63 refugees on board, while the Italian coast of Lampedusa is less than 30 miles away.
As the tragedy occurred in the enormous Maltese SAR zone, general attention was focused on the behaviour of and decisions taken by Valletta. In reality, however, when looking at the facts, Italy does not seem exempt from serious responsibility.
The raft with the 63 refugees (mostly Eritreans, some Ethiopians and some Sudanese) leaves the evening of Thursday, April 9 from the coast of Garabulli, east of Tripoli, heading north. Already the next day, Friday 10th, it is in difficulty and launches requests for help. Volunteer Alarm Phone operators intercept the messages and immediately warn the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCCs) in Malta and Rome. The dinghy was also sighted, together with four others roughly in the same stretch of sea, by a reconnaissance plane of the European agency Frontex, which in turn reports its presence both in Valletta and Rome, for the interventions of the competent authorities, it being clear - as the agency itself will later specify - that the task of organizing any rescue operations is not up to Frontex but to the competent maritime authorities, duly notified.
The position of the dinghy - from which the requests for help are multiplying - is known from the beginning: it entered the Maltese SAR zone but it is much closer to Lampedusa than to Malta. Hours and days pass but no intervention is recorded to reach it and rescue the shipwrecked. Nothing even after the point at which, on the afternoon of Monday 13th April, Easter Monday, Alarm Phone announces that since about 2.25 pm it has lost all contact with the shipwrecked people and is not able to re-establish it. It is evidently a "silence" that makes you fear the worst, but not even at this point are rescue units mobilised. Yet, according to the last report, the boat is now only 25-30 miles from Lampedusa, a distance that a patrol boat can cover in less than an hour.
The first report of the emergency communicated by the MRCC of Malta to all vessels in transit in the area only arrives around 10.30 p.m. on Tuesday 14 April. This dispatch is received by the Portuguese freighter Ivan which, while sailing from Khoms to Genoa, diverts route and performs a series of manoeuvres to intercept the raft. It was spotted at around one o'clock in the morning of Wednesday, April 15th, but the ship simply monitored it, until a strange fishing boat arrived on the spot, the Dar El Salam, with a Libyan flag and Egyptian crew but based in Malta, where it was previously registered under the name of Mae Yemania. And it is this fishing boat, in fact, that will deport the surviving castaways to Tripoli.
The climax of the tragedy takes place during the 32 hours of absolute silence and inactivity between 14.25 on 13 April (last contact with the dinghy) and 22.30 on 14 April (alert dispatch issued by Valletta). An enormous "time hole" of silences, omissions, incomprehensible choices, unloading of skills or, at least, of guilty indifference,
- On Monday, April 13, the 63 refugees, although exhausted, are all still alive, but the raft has run out of gas and is ungovernable. The first three disappear into the sea late in the morning or early afternoon, in an attempt to swim to a Panamanian container ship, the Medkon Gemlik, which is on its way to Turkey and passes a very short distance away, perhaps without even knowing the emergency in progress. Four others let themselves go to sea in the following hours, desperate to be rescued. Among the 56 left aboard the dinghy, some are very sick: they have lost consciousness, are breathing hard and give almost no sign of life. No one can be seen to rescue them: even the hopes raised by a plane that seems to have sighted the drifting boat were disappointed.
- Around one o'clock in the morning of April 15th Ivan arrived on the scene. The shipwrecked people clearly see the lights, but they remain at sea for at least three hours, until they are taken on board by the fishing boat Dar El Salam. In the meantime two of them died of hardship and hypothermia and three others appeared in desperate conditions. The two corpses are loaded onto the ship together with the survivors, at that moment 54.
- At about 5 a.m. on April 15, the Dar El Salam sailed towards Tripoli. The possibility of heading to nearby Lampedusa was not even considered.
- In the late morning of April 15, the Dar El Salam arrives at the military base of the port of Tripoli, tailed by the Gorgona, the Italian Navy ship located in the bay of Tripoli, which went out to sea on Sunday, April 12, and almost seems to be providing an escort.
- During the long hours of navigation from the threshold of Lampedusa to Africa, the three shipwrecked men died in the worst conditions. It is fair to think that if the fishing boat had headed for Lampedusa it would probably have been possible to save them.
The death toll thus rises to twelve: three drowned in an attempt to swim to the Medkom Gemlik; four who left the sea in despair; two who died before help arrived; three who died of exhaustion on board the fishing boat Dar El Salam. The 51 comrades of the victims are handed over to Sika to the horror of Tarek.
Questions about Italy
All this happens less than 30 miles from Lampedusa. In the culminating phase, in fact, probably a little more than 25 miles. This is where the question of Italian responsibility arises, for the following series of reasons:
1 - Italy was informed right from the start (reports from Alarm Phone and Frontex) of the ongoing emergency situation in the Maltese SAR zone but in waters much closer to the Italian coast of Lampedusa than in Valletta. The very fact of having received, at the same time as Malta, the request for help for dozens of people in danger of death, it would have been the task/obligation of the Italian authorities to make sure that Valletta, as the owner of the SAR zone, was intervening, especially as the situation was being updated almost hour by hour by Alarm Phone, confirming the extreme seriousness of the case. Then the Maltese inertia and the persistence of "absolute silence" and the lack of provisions on the part of the Maltese MRCC after the repeated SOS, it would have been necessary to deal directly with the rescue, especially since the dinghy with the 63 shipwrecked people was less than 30 miles from Lampedusa, on the threshold of the Italian waters (24 miles).
2 - There is no evidence that Rome has contacted Malta to coordinate interventions and to follow the evolution of the situation, intervening or making itself available in case of need, although it has ships and aircraft and personnel available to a greater extent and closer than Malta to the place of emergency and, therefore, able to organize and conduct search and rescue operations more quickly and effectively.
3 - It does not appear that Italy has denominated Lampedusa as a port of disembarkation despite the fact that it was, with clear evidence, the nearest "safe port", thus authorizing and making itself complicit, in fact, in the deportation of shipwrecked people to Tripoli.
4 - With this behaviour Italy has made itself an accomplice or in any case has endorsed the abandonment of the shipwrecked people at sea for five days; it has not taken any decision and has not moved at all even during the 32 crucial hours between 2.30 p.m. on Monday 13th and 10.30 p.m. on 14th April (when the shipwrecked people started to die); it has remained silent and, therefore, has actually contributed to the mass repulsion of 56 refugees, during which three people died.
In the light of this reconstruction, the complaint asks the Public Prosecutor's Office to ascertain whether the facts described constitute a criminal offence. In particular, to launch an investigation to verify the violation of international human rights standards for the fate of the 63 shipwrecked persons and the existence of the offences referred to in Articles 1158 (failure to assist ships or persons in distress) and 1113 (hit-and-run) of the Navigation Code and Articles 328 (refusal and omission of official acts), 593 (hit-and-run) and 613 bis (torture) of the Penal Code and any other criminal offence that may be deemed to have been committed. The story, it is worth remembering, cost the lives of 12 people and involved the collective expulsion of survivors to the hell of Libya despite the fact that for years not only the most prestigious international NGOs but, above all, institutions such as the UNHCR, IOM and the UN mission itself in Libya continuously ask not to bring back to Libyan ports the shipwrecked/migrants possibly intercepted in the Mediterranean.
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