A migrant aboard the Open Arms prays during the morning off Lampedusa Island in southern Italy, August 19, 2019 | Photo: EPA/Francisco Gentico
A migrant aboard the Open Arms prays during the morning off Lampedusa Island in southern Italy, August 19, 2019 | Photo: EPA/Francisco Gentico

A doctor who carried out an inspection aboard the Open Arms in August 2019 has testified in court. Former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini is currently facing kidnapping charges over refusing to let the rescue ship disembark in Italy.

The former health director of the Licata hospital, Vincenzo Asaro, testified in court in Palermo, southern Italy, on Friday. Asaro had carried out an inspection aboard the Open Arms in August 2019 on the orders of the Agrigento prosecutor's office.

At the time, the migrants "were in poor health and if they had been forced to stay on board the Open Arms, that would have presented a high risk to their psychophysical health -- diseases that people were already suffering from would likely have gotten worse and people would have likely also developed new diseases," Asaro testified.

'Conditions risk for migrants' and crew's health'

"The conditions of the migrants," the doctor said, "were a risk for their health and that of the crew."

Asaro described the situation aboard the small ship as follows: "We found them (the migrants, Ed.) on the deck. There were over a hundred of them, with women in the center. They were sheltering under a roof. There were two small Turkish-style bathrooms and a ship's kitchen. The migrants slept on the deck as there were no other alternatives. They did not have soap or detergents and used water from the sea that had been desalinated. There was a heap of rubbish onboard when we carried out the inspection."

The doctor did not carry out medical examinations on individual refugees. However, he said that he spoke to the doctor onboard, who told him that many of the rescuees were suffering from skin infections -- possibly scabies, as well as urinary tract infections, abdominal pain, and vomiting. Several on board also reportedly showed Asaro their injuries.

"They were in a very precarious condition," he said. "It is likely that they did not even have a way to change their underclothes. They tried to get closer to me to tell me about their health problems."

"We are talking about people in conditions of serious hardship," he stressed. "We felt very sad just seeing them. They lacked everything."

Salvini on trial over 'closed ports' decision

Former deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo Salvini is currently on trial because he refused to let the Open Arms disembark in August 2019. He has been charged with kidnapping and negligence. If found guilty, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

The Open Arms had rescued a group of more than 150 migrants and refugees across several operations in the Central Mediterranean. The NGO-run migrant rescue ship was moored off Lampedusa -- an Italian island located about halfway between mainland Italy and Tunisia and Libya -- but not permitted to dock due to a ban on private rescue ships in Italian ports imposed by Salvini. After 19 days, an Italian court overturned that rule, allowing the Open Arms to dock.

In the two and a half weeks between the rescue operations and disembarkation, migrants and crew aboard the small vessel faced severe heat and poor hygienic and living conditions. This led dozens of migrants to jump off the ship to attempt to swim to Italy.

Salvini has said that his actions were justified and in the national interest of Italy.

The leader of the far-right League party has faced legal proceedings over his refusal to let rescued migrants disembark in Italy in two cases. In May 2021, a judge in Catania, southern Italy, decided that Salvini would not be tried in the Gregoretti case.

 

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