On Monday, Italy’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal against the seizure of the Iuventa, a rescue ship operated by the German NGO Jugend Ruttet (‘Youth Rescue’). The vessel was seized last summer after an investigation by the Italian authorities into the operation of migrant rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

Evidence collected as part of the investigation, which included the use of an undercover agent, bugging devices, tapped phone calls as well as informant testimonies, led to the pre-emptive seizure of the vessel on 2 August 2017 under accusations of colluding with smugglers and “conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration”.

Lawyers had filed the appeal against the ruling of the judge in the Western Sicilian city of Trapani in favour of the prosecution’s request for pre-emptive seizure. The lawyers questioned the nature of the accusations, as well as Italy’s jurisdiction on incidents that took place in international waters.

The order of seizure itself followed the introduction of a controversial code of conduct for charity boats conducting rescues in the Mediterranean by the Italian government last summer. Several NGOs, from larger organisations such as Doctors without Borders to smaller ones including Jugend Rettet, refused to sign it before the announced deadline of 31 July 2017, claiming that the code would threaten their activities at sea. The seizure of the Iuventa was ordered only two days after this deadline.

The London-based research organisation Forensic Architecture are among several observers sceptical of the accusations brought by the Italian authorities and released an investigation last week refuting the Italian accusations and questioning their evidence. Philipp Külker, spokesperson of Jugend Rettet, said that “the analysis showed in a very clear way that the accusations are unfounded…these are just empty claims.”

The ruling is a blow to NGOs operating sea rescue missions in the Mediterranean, after the Spanish NGO rescue vessel Open Arms was ordered to be released from a Sicilian port last month, with the ship’s crew remaining under criminal investigation. The Iuventa ruling points to the wider trend of de-legitimisation and criminalization of NGO rescue missions.

Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation will publish an explanatory statement on the ruling in the coming weeks.


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Photo: (CC) Ann Wuyts, September 2015


This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin . You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.