ROME (AP) — A court in Naples has convicted the captain of an Italian commercial ship of abandonment-related charges for returning 101 migrants rescued at sea to Libya in 2018, in a ruling praised by human rights organizations.
But the court absolved the captain of the most serious charge — abuse of office — and sentenced him to a year in prison, according to a copy of the sentence and the Avvenire newspaper of the Italian bishops conference.
The U.N. refugee agency and the European Union do not consider Libya a safe port, making the forced return there of refugees, especially unaccompanied minors, a possible violation of their rights to protection and to seek asylum.
The verdict issued Wednesday by Naples judge Maria Luisa Miranda, first reported by Avvenire, was the first of its kind in Italy. It followed a 2012 verdict against Italy by the European Court of Human Rights after Italian military vessels sent back migrants to Tripoli in 2009.
The case before the Naples court concerned the July 30, 2018 rescue of 101 migrants by the Asso Ventotto, an Italian oil rig supply ship that was working for the Mellitah Oil and Gas company, a joint venture of Italy's ENI and Libya’s National Oil Corp., on the Sabratha oil platform north of Tripoli.
At the time, the ship’s operator, Naples-based Augusta Offshore, said the Asso Ventotto got a call from the Libyan coast guard to respond to a rubber dinghy carrying migrants about 1 ½ miles from the platform. After being rescued, Augusta said, the migrants didn't protest when they were transferred onto a Libyan coast guard ship and taken back to Tripoli, the closest port.
But Italian prosecutors said the instructions to take the migrants back to Tripoli came from the oil platform, that the captain didn't contact either Tripoli or Rome coast guard offices until after he started heading for Tripoli and that the Asso Ventotto itself docked in Tripoli after disembarking the migrants onto a Libyan vessel that brought them ashore, according to a court document summarizing the prosecutors' case.
The prosecutors said the crew, who had been joined onboard by a Libyan official from the oil platform, never identified the migrants, or ascertained their condition — five were pregnant — or whether they wanted asylum.
The ship captain, Giuseppe Sotgiu, was absolved of a charge of abuse of office but was convicted of two other charges concerning abandonment of minors and vulnerable people, according to Avvenire and the prosecutors’ request for a conviction.
Another defendant was acquitted of all charges.
In 2018, Italy had a hard-line, anti-migrant government with League leader Matteo Salvini as interior minister and deputy premier.
The conviction, if upheld on appeal, could have broad political implications for Italy and the E.U. since aid groups have long denounced their continued financial support of the Libyan coast guard to patrol its borders and bring back to shore migrants trying to head north.
In a sign of the political sensitivity of the case, prosecutors declined to comment, and calls and an email to Augusta weren’t immediately returned.
Riccardo Noury, spokesman for Amnesty International’s Italy office, said the sentence was important because it established for the first time in Italy that a commercial ship was “complicit in an international crime” by sending migrants back to Libya.
While noting the verdict will certainly be appealed, he said it could establish a precedent and already sent a message that “if other civilian or commercial ships do the same, they can be tried and convicted.”
Left-wing lawmaker Nicola Fratoianni was aboard the Open Arms humanitarian rescue ship the day the Asso Ventotto rescue took place and was on hand when the Open Arms tried to ascertain what was going on nearby.
He has followed the case closely and said on Facebook that the conviction marked an important precedent: “No human being is illegal. Solidarity is not a crime. Everyone has the right to a dignified life.”
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