ROME (AFP) – The captain of an Italian-flagged ship is to be tried for allegedly forcing migrants back to Libya, in the first such case in Italy, documents seen by AFP show.
The Asso 28 supply ship picked up 101 migrants near an oil and gas rig in international waters, before taking them to the port of Tripoli and handing them over to the Libyan coast guard, according to prosecutors in Naples.
The captain and a representative of the Augusta Offshore company that owns the ship are accused of violating international laws that forbid the forced return of people to countries where they or their rights are at risk.
Libya is not considered a port of safety under international law.
The rescue took place on July 30, 2018 near the Sabratha platform which is operated by Mellitah Oil & Gas, a consortium of Libya’s National Oil Corporation and Italy’s ENI.
Among those pulled from the unseaworthy dinghy were five minors and five pregnant women.
Despite the rescue taking place on an Italian-flagged ship which was under Rome’s jurisdiction, no call was made to Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), the documents show.
The Augusta Offshore company at the time said the rescue had been coordinated by the “Marine department of Sabratha”, in conjunction with a representative of the Libyan coast guard who had boarded the Asso 28.
ENI said it had been coordinated by the Libyan coast guard.
Investigative reporter Nello Scavo for the Avvenire newspaper, who first wrote about the case, said Italian prosecutors had found no trace of a Marine department of Sabratha, or evidence that the Libyan MRCC had been alerted.
The ship’s register also showed no mention of a Libyan official on board, he said.
Prosecutors in Naples have taken into evidence audio recordings of radio contact that day between the Asso 28 and the Open Arms charity rescue ship, which had requested details on the migrants’ position and condition.
Nicola Fratoianni, MP and the leader of the Italian Left party, who was on board at the time as an observer, told AFP Saturday that the Open Arms had warned 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 Sabratah platform, a platform ENI works on, and then they said the rescue had been coordinated by the Libyan authorities”.
No attempt was made to identify the migrants, check their health, verify whether the minors were unaccompanied, or ask those rescued if they were seeking asylum, all of which violate international conventions, the prosecutors claim.
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”.
A trial date has yet to be set but is expected to be after the judiciary August summer break.