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First trial in Italy over ‘migrant pushback’ to Libya

The Address | Benghazi – Libya

NAPLES, Italy – In an unprecedented case, the captain of an Italian commercial vessel is to be taken to court for returning migrants he rescued in the Mediterranean to civil war country Libya. The man is accused of violating international law, under which Libya is not a safe harbor.

The captain of an Italian-flagged ship is to be put on trial for allegedly forcing migrants back to Libya. As documents seen by news agency AFP show, this marks the first such case in Italy.

Back in July 2018, the “Asso Ventotto” (Italian for Ace 28) offshore supply ship had picked up 101 migrants near an oil and gas rig in international waters off Libya. Among those pulled from the unseaworthy dinghy were five minors and five pregnant women.

According to the public prosecutor’s office in Naples, the crew of the ship then took the migrants to the port of Tripoli and handed them over to Libya’s coast guard.

The captain and a representative of the Augusta Offshore company, which owns the Asso 28, have been accused of violating international law, which forbids the forced return of people to countries where they or their rights are at risk, AFP writes. Nonrefoulement is also a core principle of international refugee law.

Libya is not considered a port of safety under international law.

Unclear coordination

According to AFP, the 2018 rescue took place near the Sabratha oil and gas platform, which is operated by Mellitah Oil & Gas, a consortium of Libya’s National Oil Corporation and the Italian multinational oil and gas company ENI.

The documents seen by AFP show that despite the rescue taking place on an Italian-flagged ship, which was under Rome’s jurisdiction, Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) wasn’t alerted.

ENI at the time claimed the rescue had been coordinated by Libya’s coast guard. The Augusta Offshore company had said it was the “Marine department of Sabratha”, a coastal city in Libya, in conjunction with a representative of Libya’s coast guard who had boarded the Asso 28.

But Italian Avvenire newspaper’s investigative reporter Nello Scavo, who first wrote about the case, said Italian prosecutors had found no trace of a “Marine department of Sabratha.” The journalist further said that there was no evidence that the Libyan MRCC had been alerted.

The register of the Asso 28 also showed no mention of a Libyan official on board, Scavo said.

Returning migrants to Libya ‘illegal’

Prosecutors in Naples have taken into evidence audio recordings of radio contact the day of the rescue between the Asso 28 and the Open Arms charity rescue ship, which had requested details on the migrants’ position and condition, AFP reports.

Member of Parliament and leader of the Italian Left party, Nicola Fratoianni, who was onboard the Open Arms at the time as an observer, told AFP the Open Arms had warned the crew of the Asso 28 that returning the migrants to Libya “was illegal”.

“They [the Asso 28] first said they had had an order from their boss on the Sabratha platform, a platform ENI works on, and then they said the rescue had been coordinated by the Libyan authorities.”

Migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean are regularly picked up by Libyan authorities and returned to Libya. Charities report their rescue ships are often out-run by Libyan coast guards who beat them to take the migrants back.

Around 6,000 migrants have reportedly been intercepted and brought back to Libya so far this year.

No attempt to identify migrants

According to AFP, the Italian prosecutors say the crew of the Asso 28 made no attempt to identify the migrants, check their health, verify whether the minors were unaccompanied or ask the rescuees whether they were seeking asylum. All of these things violate international conventions.

Politician Fratoianni described it as “an explicit collective pushback on the part of a ship flying the Italian flag.” The trial was key to “getting to the truth behind too frequent episodes in the central Mediterranean,” he said.

“Not just the infinite tragedies, drownings, deaths, but also the illegal pushbacks, which go against all international laws,” Fratoianni said further.

Although a trial date hasn’t been confirmed yet, it is expected to be after the judiciary August summer break.

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