After four years, Eritrean priest Mussie Zerai has been cleared of all charges related to aiding illegal immigration in the southern Italian city of Trapani. An activist involved for years in providing humanitarian aid to refugees, Zerai was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2015.
Father Mussie Zerai has been cleared of all charges related to aiding illegal immigration. The decree shelving the case against Zerai was officially communicated to the priest by his attorney on Thursday, May 26.
Prosecutors in the southern city of Trapani investigated for 52 months before shelving the case with a decree which was actually dated December 2021. However, it took a total of 57 months for the probe against the rights activist to be officially over, proving that the disgraceful allegations against him were unfounded, Italian Catholic daily Avvenire said.
Priest involved in probe into German NGO Jugend Rettet
The Eritrean priest, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2015 who has worked for years to bring humanitarian aid to refugees, was notified on August 9, 2017, that he was under investigation.
He was probed on charges of aiding illegal immigration as part as an inquiry carried out by prosecutors in Trapani into German NGO Jugend Rettet.
The investigation had originally started in November 2016. "I didn't know anything about it," the priest said. He said that what was most painful was learning about it from the news. "I was travelling in Ethiopia when a brother called me and read the newspaper headlines."
'I never had anything to hide'
Father Zerai is the founder and president of news agency Habeshia, or 'migrants' lifesaver'. He has always offered assistance on the phone to those who were about to leave, warning authorities when boats crossing the Mediterranean were in difficulty so a rescue operation could be organized.
"Before informing NGOs ... after receiving a call from refugees departing from Libya, I always called the operations center of Italian coast guards and Malta's command. I never had any contact with Iuventa," he said. Iuventa is the rescue vessel operated by German NGO Jugend Rettet which was seized by prosecutors in Trapani. Zerai went on to say that he never "joined secret chat groups and I always communicated with my cell phone."
The priest was accused of colluding with the human traffickers he has always fought. "I never had anything to hide because I always acted under the sun and legally."
He said he always sent rescue signals to the UN refugee agency UNHCR and to aid organizations active in the Mediterranean at that time -- Doctors Without Borders, Sea Watch, Moas and Watch the Med.
Against presence of NGO rescue vessels
Zerai said he was not in favor of the withdrawal of Italian military vessels, referring to Italy's year-long and large-scale Mare Nostrum (Our sea in Latin) search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean, which ended in October 2014 and that he was against the presence of rescue vessels operated by NGOs.
"I said they were useful to the political power because they saved human lives while at the same time becoming easy scapegoats. And it ended in that way, but I couldn't imagine that I would be involved too."
The decree shelving the case in Trapani cleared Father Zerai of any involvement and ruled out charges against cultural mediators on board the rescue vessels, as well as against crew members and the captain of the Iuventa ship.