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Med: Italy Steps up Criminalisation of the Civil Fleet as Dozens Die at Sea

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The crack down on the civil fleet by Italian authorities has intensified on several fronts over the course of the past two weeks. Criminal investigations were opened against parties involved in the rescue of 27 survivors in August 2020 that was followed by the longest stand-off in recent European maritime history. Following the closure of investigations related to the Iuventa rescue ship, Italian authorities have charged 21 individuals and 3 organisations of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. The Sea Watch 4 civil rescue ship, operated by Sea Watch International, was finally released after six months of seizure by Italian authorities, while the case is still pending before the European Court of Justice. Its sister ship Sea Watch 3, also recently released after a seven months blockade, rescued 363 people in distress between 26 and 28 February and more than 400 people were rescued by the civil rescue ship Aita Mari and two commercial vessels the week before. Despite the lack of cooperation by Italian and Maltese authorities all survivors finally disembarked in Sicily. Over the past two weeks, dozens of people have lost their lives in the Western and Central Mediterranean, bringing this year's death toll to at least 234 people. In the same period, more than 4,000 people were intercepted at sea and returned to Libya where they face arbitrary detention and abuse.

On 1 March, Italian authorities launched an operation against Mediterranea Saving Humans and searched the NGO's rescue ship Mare Jonio as well as private homes. The investigations concern the NGO's role in the rescue of 27 people in distress by the Danish shipping company Maersk Tankers in August last year. A rescue that was followed by the longest stand-off in recent European maritime history as Maltese and Italian authorities refused the disembarkation of the survivors for almost 40 days. After conditions on board the Maersk Etienne seriously deteriorated, the survivors were transshipped to the Mare Jonio vessel to receive crucial medical attention by its medical team and disembarked in Sicily the following day. According to a statement by the Ragusa public prosecutor's office, the operation against the NGO concerns the offences of aiding and abetting illegal immigration and violating the maritime navigation code. Further, it accuses the NGO of having received money in exchange for the transhipment of the 27 survivors. Maersk Tankers emphasised in a statement that the incident was a sole "humanitarian situation" and "that at no time before or during the operation was any financial compensation or support discussed or agreed." It further pointed out that months after the incident, the company met with representatives of the NGO to thank them for their humanitarian assistance and later on decided to cover some of the expenses deriving from the NGO's assistance. Following the searches, Mediterranea Saving Humans highlighted in a press statement that "the charges are serious but the real target is the civil rescue operation at sea that we've been carrying out since 2018." The operation against Mediterranea Saving Humans adds to a growing body of legal actions against civil search and rescue organisations.

More than three years after the seizure of the Iuventa cilvil search and rescue ship by Italian authorities, the Trapani prosecutor's office on 3 March pressed charges of aiding and abetting illegal immigration against parties involved in the rescue of more than 14,000 people between August 2016 and August 2017. The search and rescue organisation Jugend Retted, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children, as well as 21 individuals were charged. The groups lawyer Francesca Cancellaro stated: "Saving lives is never a crime. We will prove that all the operations of the Iuventa crew were absolutely lawful. While the EU turned away from the Mediterranean transforming it into a mass grave for Europe's undesirables, the crew of the Iuventa headed to sea as volunteers, in order to protect the fundamental rights to life and to seek asylum, as required by international law and before that by human solidarity." The findings of the triennial investigations have not been made public, but according to the NGO Jugend Rettet, the crew of the Iuventa risk up to 20 years in jail.

A second civil rescue ship operated by Sea Watch International was finally released after months of seizure by Italian authorities. On 2 March, the Administrative Court in Palermo preliminarily suspended the detention of the Sea-Watch 4 which had been blocked since September due to investigations into the ship's registration and the number of life vest on board. The case remains pending before the European Court of Justice since a referral last December. The Sea Watch 3, blocked by Italian authorities last July for "several irregularities", finally resumed its life-saving mission on 19 February.

In five different rescue operations between 26 and 28 February, the Sea Watch 3 rescued 363 people from distress, about one third of them children. In a sixth operation, the crew evacuated 90 people from a wooden boat in critical condition to life rafts until the Italian Coast Guard arrived, as the Sea Watch 3 had no more capacity to take them on board. Following days of difficult coordination with Italian and Maltese authorities, the ship was finally assigned Augusta in Sicily as safe port where all survivors disembarked on 3 March.

Two commercial vessels and the civil rescue ship Aita Mari, operated by Humanitarian Maritime Rescue, have brought more than 400 survivors to Sicily on 20 and 22 February. One of the commercial ships, the Vos Triton, sailed to Italy only after the 77 survivors on board, who had survived a deadly shipwreck, protested against being returned to Libya.

The 77 people rescued by the Vos Triton on 20 February had left Libyan shores on a dinghy carrying about 120 people, which started to take in water only hours after departing. Eight people drowned in the attempt to swim towards a ship spotted close by or after going overboard, and many more lost their lives during the difficult rescue operation. In total, 41 people died during the incident, while only one body was recovered. The same day, a boat capsized on its way to Lampedusa. The Italian coast guard rescued 45 people, but 5 to 10 people went missing. Meanwhile, 120 people on several boats managed to land on the island, according to Italian public radio. Aboard one of the boats, a child had been born during the crossing. On 28 February, at least 15 people drowned when their boat capsized off Libya. 95 people were returned to Libya by the so-called Libyan coast guard where survivors face arbitrary detention and abuse.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 4,000 people have been pulled back to Libya, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Libya reports. At least 234 lives were lost in the western and central Mediterranean Sea in the first two months of this year. Following the latest deaths at sea, UNHCR and IOM reiterated that "saving the lives of refugees and migrants in distress in the Mediterranean must once again become a priority for the European Union and the international community." Meanwhile, Fabio Agostini, head of Operation Irini which is tasked with the implementation of the UN arms embargo to Libya, suggested that the EU must give the Libyan coast guard more autonomy in regard to migration across the Mediterranean Sea.

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