in: express 12/2018
According to official statements, the EU operation “Sophia”, which has been operating since 2015, was primarily intended to stop “smuggling”, while sea rescue, unlike previous operations, was no longer an explicit goal. Now it is precisely the right wing of the Italian government that is refusing to approve the continuation of this operation without new regulations for the distribution of the – few – still rescued refugees in the EU and without changing the underlying Dublin Agreement. Italy’s government wants the country no longer to be solely responsible for the reception of refugees and calls for “European solidarity”. Until then, the ports will be closed, the civilian rescue ships will be detained and confiscated and the sea rescue workers accused of aiding illegal immigration.
Against this background, we spoke with the paramedic Sascha, who was on board the rescue vessel IUVENTA as the head of mission and is also affected by this persecution.
You are accused of aiding and abetting illegal immigration in Italy, along with nine other people who were on the IUVENTA. Before we turn to the trial, please tell us how this happened.
IUVENTA was off the Libyan coast, west and east of Tripoli, from July 2016 to August 2017. Together with us, up to twelve ships of non-governmental organisations were active in this area. The IUVENTA is an old fishing vessel, 33 meters long. The ship was bought in 2016 by the association “Jugend Rettet” and rebuilt with many volunteers. Per mission there were 14 crew members and two journalists on board, we had two speedboats with us, a relatively well-equipped medical unit, life jackets and life rafts. With all this we were able to care for up to 800 people in distress situations at the same time. Our mission strategy can best be characterized as pro-active search and rescue – we went where the distress was to be expected in order to be able to evacuate the people as quickly as possible. In our opinion, this was the only adequate approach. Many hundreds of people lost their lives after “Mare Nostrum” ended. The rescue mission “Mare Nostrum” was commenced by the Italian government and saved the lives of around 100,000 people between October 2013 and October 2014, using the same operational strategies like we did. It was replaced by mission “Triton” conducted by Frontex, an operation with the sole purpose of border protection. One reason for this was the high costs that Italy alone had to bear after the refusals from other EU states. On the other hand, even back then right-wing populists, from Lega Nord to de Maizière, determined the debate about the “pull factor” of such a rescue mission. Despite the immense efforts (900 marine soldiers equipped with amphibious vehicles, frigates and corvettes, supported by helicopters, drones and search planes), more than 3,000 people died in the first ten months of 2014 attempting to flee across the central Mediterranean.
In our 16 missions, we were involved in the rescue of approximately 14,000 people until the ship was “preemptively seized” in the port of Lampedusa on August 2, 2017 and taken to Trapani, a port in Sicily. It still remains there today. One year later, in July 2018, it was announced that an investigation had been opened against ten of the former crew members for “aiding and abetting illegal immigration”. The persons concerned were all directly involved in the rescue of the people or instructed them. In the course of the investigation, mobile phones, computers and hard disks were also confiscated. We expect the main proceedings to begin next year.
What concrete actions are you accused of in the investigation?
Short answer: … that is what we ask ourselves! Long answer: The minimum sentence for “aiding and abetting illegal immigration” is five years, the maximum is 20 years in prison. In addition there are fines in the millions, namely 15,000 euros per illegally immigrated person. Since we do not yet have access to the files, we do not know what concrete accusations they are making against us, but we suspect that the basis of the investigations are those accusations which have already led to the seizure of IUVENTA. We have 550 pages of investigation files in which the following “criminal offenses” are listed:
Firstly, we were accused of illegal possession of weapons. Behind this lies a fabulous story of an alleged meeting with arms smugglers on the open sea – neither weapons were found on board our ship nor with the alleged arms smugglers. This allegation probably served only to justify the preemptive seizure. Secondly, we are talking about cooperation with organized crime.
It is said that there was collusion and direct cooperation between us and Libyan traffickers. An undercover agent and other eyewitnesses claim to have observed how we took refugees directly from the traffickers and in exchange returned outboard engines and whole boats for reuse. And thirdly, aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Irregular entry is a criminal act in Italy. Since we were a link in a “chain of events” which leads to the committing of this crime, our actions should be prevented ( preemptive seizure ) and prosecuted ( accusation against individuals ).
On our homepage we have published a detailed counter-analysis by a research agency of Goldsmiths University of London.
De facto these accusations mean: The saving of human lives is declared a criminal offense because we brought the rescued persons to a safe port, which means to Europe – exactly as prescribed by maritime law. This is basically the classic criminalization of escape aid, which, depending on political motivations, is sometimes considered a legitimate and highly valued act and sometimes a criminal offense. Anyone who thought that laws such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, CAT (United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) and Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms were universally applicable will be advised differently. It is precisely these fundamental rights (and obligations) agreed upon as lessons from the two world wars that are being debated here and are to be subordinated to national criminal law.
In addition, there are two other reactionary narratives in the investigation files:
We are not humanitarian activists, but political militants whose primary goal is the illegal smuggling of migrants and the acquisition of funds through donation raising. In addition, one of the most popular arguments of the right-wing populists is utilized: the life-threatening situation of the people in the boats is fundamentally doubted. Ergo: no distress at sea, no reason to save, no claim to a safe port in Europe…
A combination of these two arguments would then lead to the assertion that anyone who shelters people who are not in need and brings them to Europe probably has a motive other than saving human lives. Because of our proactive search for boats and because we allegedly refused to cooperate with the Italian authorities, they want to show us a politically radical attitude.
How was it investigated at all, and how is it intended to prove that your missions did not serve the rescue operations at sea, but “illegal entry”?
On the basis of the available files, as well as those from other proceedings against sea rescue workers, we can say today with certainty that by September 2016 at the latest there was a comprehensive observation of all NGOs and their supporters.
Why the investigations focused on us cannot be said with certainty. We can only read the official version from the investigation files of the seizure: In September 2016, two security company employees working on the “Vos Hestia” chartered by “Save the Children” observed and reported on “irregular” behaviour by IUVENTA. As we can see from the confiscation files, these reports were first handed over to members of the right-wing populist Lega as well as directly to the Italian Foreign Intelligence Service.
On the basis of these “observations”, the public prosecutor then opened the investigation against us in Trapani, Sicily. To these “eyewitness reports” must be mentioned: The two employees of the security company, former police officers, are connected with the neo-fascist scene in Italy, the “identitarian movement” and the Lega.
These reports lack any legal relevance and are mainly based on speculations and personal opinions about our motives. Nevertheless, the prosecution considered these “eyewitness reports” trustworthy and credible. In the months that followed, a series of measures were taken: telephone wiretapping, the installation of a bug on the bridge of the IUVENTA and the deployment of an undercover agent on the Vos Hestia. Five different investigation units were involved (criminal police, coast guard, financial police, foreign intelligence service, anti-mafia special unit), all in all a huge effort.
In the meantime, some of the confiscated equipment has already been read. In order to prevent the whole thing from taking on even more blatant proportions, we requested that the investigation be carried out by an independent expert. Our lawyer Nicola Canestrini once said that the technical laboratory should not become the extended arm of the police and prosecution. An independent investigation will show once again that no IUVENTA crew member has ever had anything to do with organized crime.
In the documentary “IUVENTA” members of the crew repeatedly point out that the real motivation for chartering the ship was to politically scandalize the sealing off of the European external borders. How do you combine the impulse to try to help with the long-term political motivation to change the politics of the European border regime?
For me, the one cannot be thought of without the other! The direct “humanitarian” action is a practical criticism of the existing social conditions and therefore for me is inseparably linked with my political position, my political socialization and my dreams of a free and egalitarian society.
In our 16 missions about 150 people have worked with us as crew on the Iuventa, there were different origins, political backgrounds, convictions and age groups. What has united us: We cannot let the people die there… And it is possible to do something against it. Full stop. Is such an approach now political or “purely humanitarian”? I think we could discuss this for many hours – but the people on the water or in the Libyan camps do not have that time! We were able to save these people, because we came together, because we got organized. That is a political act, because it has changed something. In addition: no matter with which motivation, attitude or expectation someone joined us – it became clear to everyone that this is not an accident and not a natural disaster. It is a political decision to let these people die there… whether on the water, in the Libyan camps, or in the desert.
How do you explain the timing of the indictment? And how do you interpret it, that they still want to get you personally, although your ship was already moored long ago and you were no longer able to bring people to Italy or elsewhere in Europe?
The investigation was opened a few weeks after the inauguration of Matteo Salvini from the right-wing Lega as Minister of the Interior. I think that speaks for itself…
The Lega and its coalition partner Cinque Stelle have carried out and won the election campaign at costs of the migrant community and the refugees. In addition to the discrediting and criminalization of daily aid and solidarity, the closure of the ports belonged to this. The same applies to the criminalization of those who want to enter Italian ports with ships carrying rescued persons. The Italian government needs an image of enemy, and refugees without advocates and us as left-wing German political activists come just at the right time!
It is a political criminal trial. And it is a strategy: with this kind of accusation nobody can feel safe anymore who actively and in solidarity stands up for refugees and migrants. Not in Italy, nor elsewhere. Criminal trials of this nature are taking place all over Europe. Sarah and Sean spent more than 100 days in Greek custody on Lesbos for their work. They were released on bail only a few days ago. The ‘Stansted 15’ have to fear life sentences because they have peacefully blocked a deportation. On the day of the 70th birthday of human rights, a court ruled that their actions had violated anti-terrorist laws. In the French town of Briançon, where activists search for missing people on the Alpine passes and provide them with food and clothing, a group of people are on trial because they allegedly made it possible through a demonstration for 20 migrants to cross the Italian-French border. After eleven days in custody, 25 days of house arrest followed. Some of them now have to go to prison for 4 months. Tunisian fishermen are accused of rescuing people in distress at sea. The mayor of Riace, Italy, is punished for his pioneering project of integration, more and more NGO ships are prevented from working in the Mediterranean. The list is long and growing. High fines, probation or even imprisonment are not only intended to stop the concerned activists themselves. All others should also be discouraged from standing up for the interests of migrants. Any action, be it individual engagement or the formation in campaigns and collectives, which tries to resist exclusion, deportation and the racist offensive of the border regime, should be prevented.
And in our case, too, it is by no means just a question of Italian domestic policy: in the past few years, with the full backing of the EU, Italy has gradually but radically changed the conditions for rescue operations between Sicily and Libya in order to contain migration via the central Mediterranean.
This policy of isolation works like this:
Firstly, the seizure of IUVENTA was only the start of a whole series of measures to discredit and criminalize non-governmental rescue organizations. It is not just that we cannot effectively bring people into Europe. Our mere presence as human rights observers raises problems. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has put it in a nutshell: “If not European ships are rescuing, but Libyan or Egyptian ships, complex legal questions do not arise in the first place”.
Secondly, Italy and the EU have de facto taken over the strategic and operational control of the so-called Libyan coastguard. Through political agreements, the provision of material and technical support, and extensive coordination mechanisms, they have enabled this coastguard to intercept migrants and return them to Libyan camps. This policy has been implemented in full knowledge of the violent behavior of the warlord-dominated coastguard and the detention and inhumane treatment migrants face when they return to Libya.
In the first five months of 2018, over 42 per cent of migrants who fled from Libya to Italy and survived were returned to the Libyan coast. By comparison, the figure for the same period in 2017 was around eleven percent. The increase is to be seen in the context of the “Pushback by Proxy” strategy implemented by Italy through the activities of the Libyan Coast Guard.
Italy acts indirectly through the Libyan coastguard by having these pushbacks carried out on its behalf by a proxy in violation of the principle of non-refoulement. The principle of non-refoulement, part of the 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits countries which receive asylum seekers from sending them back against their will to an area where their life or freedom could be endangered.
In Germany, the criminalization of sea rescue has also led to much indignation. With the #Seebrücke an impressively broad protest movement has emerged in a short time. What can you say about the mood in Italy?
We have been to Italy several times in the last months. We have been to film events, to demonstrations, on the radio and have spoken with a wide variety of people. At the Italian “indivisible” demo in Rome, under the motto #indivisibili, an incredible number of people were on the streets, 100,000 are said to have been there, the largest demonstration since 2011 in Rome. In Turin there were 40,000 on the NO TAV demonstration (against the high-speed train TAV, editor’s note). Something is moving! There are many people, from dissatisfied to upset, who are taking to the streets against the government and the neo-fascists.
The topic of criminalization and defamation of solidarity is much more present there. The attack on social rights, freedom of movement, physical integrity and the freedom to be politically or socially organized is much more immediate than it is in Germany. The “Décreto Salvini” is clearly not just a restriction on the right of asylum. It is a laboratory, because it offers the model for further repressive measures against all those who do not suit the government.
But in Italy the polarization is also much harder than it is here. That is what the fascists are counting on, and unfortunately they are the ones who completely determine the political disputes. The bourgeois are sitting with them in government and the remaining parliamentary left is following the dictated agenda. Not only are they gaining more and more votes in polls, they are escalating political and social debates. Unfortunately, there is no strong movement that would have adequate answers…
This debate is of course very, very important for the outcome of our proceedings. That is why we will continue to be present as often as possible in the future in order to make ourselves somehow “useful”.
From your point of view, what do you think of the policy of the current Italian government to prevent civil sea rescue on the one hand, but on the other to focus on a new redistribution in Europe and to appeal for “European solidarity”?
…what should I answer? The policy of the Lega and the Cinque Stelle is neo-fascist crap shit! But of course, the Dublin rules are a giant mess! Not only for the migrants, but also for the Italian citizens. Both have been left alone for far too long to take care of the reception of refugees. But it is also clear that the policy of the Lega is not a bit concerned with the well-being of migrants or the needs of most Italians. It is about the interests of Italian capital and a neo-fascist idea of a Europe of fortification, deterrence and purge.
What about safe and legal escape routes, humanitarian corridors or even unlimited freedom of movement for everyone? We are talking about “relocation from below”, the safe onward journey and onward distribution of those who arrive according to their interests and community structures in Europe. I do not believe in a policy that does not demand this.
Are the various NGOs, whose operations on ships are being criminalized, able to defend themselves together, or is it difficult to agree on a common approach?
On the water, during the operations, everyone worked well and effectively together. There was an exchange of crew members, material and know-how. Missions were usually coordinated together. It was a very solidary cooperation, which would not have been so successful without. Even now there still is this cooperation and support. After the confiscations it was a matter of course for us to step in and help other organizations. On the other hand, the other NGOs support us wherever they can.
But of course, there are also enormous differences.
For us on the Iuventa the main field of work was our direct action. We had no other projects, no paid positions, we were a core team working with constantly changing volunteers. We were able to concentrate on sea rescue and to politically escalate the issue of flight and escape aid.
For others, paid jobs, funding and enforceability of other projects are at stake. These organisations have to operate in the political arena in a very different way from a small NGO. As I said, these differences were not so relevant in the field, but in such a politically tense and dangerous situation they become noticeable.
The process will certainly be expensive and you need donations. What other support would you like?
We need money as a first priority. Money for lawyers, court costs and public relations. These are our biggest costs and this is the work we know least about. There are also costs for mobilization, travel expenses, translators, etc. We expect costs of more than 500.000 Euro.
And beyond that: If they take us into pre-trial detention or in the end even seriously into jail, we want something to happen on the streets and in the communities. It is clear to us that we cannot only win such a trial in the courtroom. Publicity, our most effective protection, is only of any value if it is the expression of a strong and living movement. Who would have thought that the activists on Lesbos would be detained and that they would have to stay in for so long?
We hope that our case will not be forgotten over the years and that all the great people who currently support us will still be there. Not only because it is about our freedom and physical integrity, but above all because it means a drastic change in the ability to act, freedom of movement and mobilization of social and political movements. It is an attack on all of us, and we hope that it will be perceived as such. In many European countries activists are already on trial because they show solidarity with people “on the move”, be they people who have to flee or people who leave their homeland for a better life. And we hope that no one will be intimidated by this and that in the end we will encourage people to continue being active, to strengthen themselves and others with our case, which we of course want to win in a blaze of publicity and solidarity!
In the best case, I would say: We are guilty of solidarity – be our partners in crime!
Thank you very much for the interview, and all the best!