Migrants sit in a rubber dinghy awaiting rescue in the Mediterranean Sea | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/O. Calvo
Migrants sit in a rubber dinghy awaiting rescue in the Mediterranean Sea | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/O. Calvo

A group of human rights activists and lawyers took their case to prosecutors to a court in Rome on Thursday, asking them to determine whether the Italian authorities were complicit in an incident involving a migrant boat at Easter, in which 12 people drowned and the 51 survivors were taken back to Libya.

Since the events over the Easter weekend this year, human rights activists have been trying to get the authorities to shoulder some responsibility for what happened to a boat originally carrying 63 migrants, which, after drifting for five days, was picked up by a fishing boat and taken back to Libya. It transpired that 12 of those on board died during that time. Deaths that activists say could have been avoided if the responsible authorities had acted more quickly on information provided to them about the boat's whereabouts by organizations like Alarm Phone.

Activists in Malta already filed two police reports against the Maltese authorities in mid-April because the incident took place in the Maltese search and rescue zone. They alleged criminal inaction on the part of Malta's Prime Minister Robert Abela and the head of the armed forces, reports the news agency AFP. They were both cleared of wrongdoing following a magisterial inquiry in Malta.

Now it is the turn of Italian human rights activists. A group including the Open Arms foundation, Open Arms Italy, a committee calling itself the "Committee for Truth and Justice for the 'new disappeared/missing' in the Mediterranean" and various lawyers have taken their case to prosecutors at Rome's court to determine whether the Italian authorities too have blood on their hands since they were also informed about the boat days before the migrants were eventually picked up.

Easter tragedy

The pro-migrant organization Melting Pot calls the incident which took place on Easter Monday this year the "Strage di pasquetta." The word strage can mean massacre or tragedy in Italian. Alarm Phone also tweeted about the case, on July 1 in Italian.

The incident in April happened in the Maltese search and rescue zone, about 30 nautical miles off the Italian island of Lampedusa. The statement from the group in Italian reads: "Between April 10 and 15 the umpteenth tragedy in the Mediterranean took place. 12 young men died, ten Eritreans and two Ethiopians. Another 51 migrants, among them two tiny babies, were taken, against their will, back to Libya, where they were then imprisoned in the detention center Tarek al Sika, one of the most infamous centers in the whole of Tripoli and the surrounding area."

The statement continues that having reconstructed events, the group thinks that there would be enough evidence to prosecute a crime and violation of international law. They say there are two "inexplicable facts" which they want explained. Why was there an "enormous delay in the arrival of the rescue services – five days passed between being informed about the boat and them doing something concrete," and "why were the survivors deported to Libya, more than 150 miles away from where the boat was drifting and a place which definitely cannot be defined as a safe haven."

A reconstruction of events

The document from the group presents the "facts" of the events as they have reconstructed them from various testimony and reports. They say that the boat set off from the Libyan coast at Garabulli, east of Tripoli on April 9. Just a day later, the boat was already in difficulty and informed Alarm Phone. That organization "immediately informed the search and rescue coordination units in Rome and in Malta." The boat was also registered as having been "seen" along with "four others in the same area" by a Frontex plane, reads the statement.

Frontex themselves confirmed that they also informed the competent authorities in Malta and Rome because, under the law, it is up to them to coordinate rescues, not Frontex.

Although the dinghy was in the Maltese search and rescue zone, the group points out that it was much nearer the Italian island of Lampedusa than Malta. By Easter Monday, April 13, Alarm Phone lost all contact with those on board and "fearing that this silence could mean the worst" once again tried to mobilize help. The statement says though, although the "last known position of the boat was about 25-30 miles off Lampedusa, a distance that could be covered by a motorboat in less than an hour," no help was forthcoming.

A fishing boat arrives

"The first emergency call out to all boats in the area in fact came from the Maltese coordination center on April 14 around 22.30 in the evening," reads the statement. "The first ship to pick up the call is the Ivan sailing under a Portuguese flag, which was on its way from Khoms to Genoa." The Ivan "changes course and completes a series of manouvres to intercept the dinghy, but once there, it just circles it and monitors." Then, the statement says, a fishing boat arrives bearing the name "Dar El Salam," flying a Libyan flag with an Egyptian crew. According to the Committee for Truth and Justice for those missing in the Mediterranean this fishing boat had its base in Malta where it "was previously registered under the name Mae Yemania."

It is this fishing boat, reads the statement "which takes the 51 survivors back to Libya."

The statement says that the time between the silence just after lunch on April 13 and the arrival of the fishing boat on the evening of April 14 is a "stormy hole full of silence, omissions, inexplicable choices, avoidance of responsibility, and culpable indifference."

'Still alive'

It continues stating that on April 13 all 63 people on board were "still alive." According to the group's statement, the first three migrants drowned late morning or early afternoon on April 13 in an attempt to "reach a passing container ship the Medkon Gemlik […] which probably didn't even know about the tragedy which was unfolding so near it."

"A further four jumped into the sea despairing that they would ever be saved." Several more were losing consciousness and "feeling really ill," said the statement. The Ivan arrived "around 1am on the morning of April 15," reads the statement "but they remained in the sea for at least three more hours until the Dar El Salam arrived." In those three hours, the group claim two more people died "from exhaustion and hypothermia and three more were in a critical condition."

More deaths

According to the statement, 54 people and the two bodies were loaded on to the Dar El Salam bound for Tripoli. "Going to Lampedusa was not even considered," say the group. The Dar El Salam arrived at the military harbor in Tripoli late morning of April 15. It was followed by a boat, the Gorgona from the Italian navy, the group claims. "It almost seemed to be accompanying it," they write.

"During those three hours of voyage to Africa three more people died. We can only think that had they been taken the much shorter distance to Lampedusa, it might have been possible to save them," the statement reads.

Italian responsability?

Italian authorities should shoulder their portion of responsibility because they "were informed from the very beginning of the presence of this boat," the signatories demand. They say that it was Rome's responsibility to check that the Maltese were coordinating a rescue and that as far as they know, Rome did not contact Malta to offer help, even though they had forces, boats and personnel available and much nearer than the Maltese did. They also say that Italy should have designated Lampedusa a port for disembarkation because it was the "nearest safe port" to the incident.

The group says that Italy is thus "complicit" in events and in remaining silent, particularly during the "critical 32 hours between April 13 and April 14", it "essentially contributed to the pushback of a group of people, during which time three people died."

They call for an investigation to determine whether Italy is in fact guilty of breaking international law, in particular regarding a "failure to assist boats or people in difficulty," and "failure to rescue."

The group has also made a "formal request to the UN Committee against Torture to launch an inquiry under Article 20 concerning Italy's conduct in the Central Mediterranean which is leading to the mass torture, rape and forced labor of thousands of migrants pulled back to Libya."


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