Italian prosecutors said they are seeking government permission to investigate footage purportedly showing the Libyan coast guard firing shots at a migrant boat in the Mediterranean Sea. The video was filmed by rescue organization Sea-Watch, who also filed the complaint.
On June 30, German rescue charity Sea-Watch filmed a scene which shows a Libyan coast guard vessel apparently trying to ram a crowded migrant boat and firing shots in an attempt to force the people on board back to Libya.
The NGO was able to film the scene from its surveillance plane Seabird, and later published the video on its social media channels.
A team of Italian prosecutors are now seeking permission from the Italian justice ministry to launch an official probe. Luigi Patronaggio, head prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, told news agency AFP he was looking into the allegations of "attempted shipwreck". The authorization from the justice ministry was needed "given that the object of the proceeding is a foreign authority," Patronaggio said. "The alleged crime was committed in international waters, against foreigners."
If approved, the criminal probe would be the first of its kind in Europe, according to Sea-Watch spokeswoman Giorgia Linardi, because it would be "the first time a European country has launched an investigation against the Libyan coastguard."
The 64 migrants on board the boat later landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, which falls under the jurisdiction of Agrigento. Therefore the migrants could testify in the case. However, any investigation would be complicated by the fact that Italy and Libya do not have a judicial cooperation pact, news agency AFP writes.
The Libyan navy reacted to the video and released a statement which said that the coast guard ship had defied protocols by firing warning shots, and that it had endangered the lives of both migrants and crew.
The coastguard command "will take all legal measures against those found to be involved in this incident," the statement said.
And it "affirms its commitment to continue its missions and its obligation to save lives at sea and protect the Libyan coastline with respect for Libyan and international laws and provisions."
Sea-Watch calls for end of funding
The coast guard vessel shooting at the migrant boat in the Sea-Watch video is one of several patrol boats Italy has supplied to Libya. "The violence to which the migrants were subjected is unacceptable and shows the need to stop aid to the so-called Libyan coastguard," Sea-Watch’s Giorgia Linardi said.
For years, the European Union and Italy have provided funding and training to Libya’s coast guard to stop migrant departures from Libya’s shores and take intercepted migrants back to Libya.
Sea-Watch and many other human rights groups have condemned the arrangement and have called for its termination. They insist that anyone rescued at sea should be disembarked at a place of safety in accordance with international maritime law. Libya is not considered to be a port of safety, an assessment shared by the rights arm of the United Nations.
The news about the possible probe into the gunshot incident comes ahead of a vote in the Italian parliament on renewing funding for the Libyan coast guard.
Between January and June this year, the Libyan coast guard returned over 13,000 people to Libya. The number surpasses the number returned in all of 2020, UNHCR says.
Nearly 900 people have perished in the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.