On 20 March the prosecutor’s office in Palermo formally called for the trial of former interior minister Matteo Salvini for kidnapping over his decision to prevent the disembarkation of more than 100 people on board the Open Arms NGO vessel in 2019. On 21 March the civil search and rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3 was detained by Italian authorities for the third time in less than two years. Following recent loss of lives on the Med the civil search and rescue vessel Ocean Viking saved 116 people preventing another tragedy with survivors disembarking in Sicily on 23 March.

The former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini could face up to 15 years imprisonment and being barred from government office if convicted of kidnapping charges related to an incident in August 2019 when 147 survivors rescued by the NGO Open Arms were denied disembarkation. The stand off ended with an Italian prosecutor’s seizure of the vessel and the evacuation of the last 80 people on board, stranded at sea for up to 19 days. The formal call for charges from the prosecutor’s office in Palermo marks the latest development in a long-running legal process with Italy’s Senate authorising the court to pursue the kidnapping investigation last year. Salvini commented on Facebook: “I am proud to have worked to protect my country, respecting the law, waking up Europe and saving lives. If this should cause me problems and suffering, I’ll gladly take it on”.

In the latest incident in the ongoing crack-down on the civil search and rescue fleet by Italian authorities, the Sea-Watch 3 is held in administrative detention for the third time in less than two years. The measure followed an inspection by the coast guard of the vessel that landed at the Sicilian port Augusta in the beginning of March with 385 survivors. Allegedly the inspection uncovered irregularities including the violation of the authorisation to carry a maximum of 22 people. In a comment the organisation stated: “Again, we are accused of having rescued too many people. The alternative: Letting 363 people drown, as EU authorities are turning a blind eye, not showing any efforts to closing the rescue gap in the Mediterranean”.

Up to 60 lives are feared lost after a boat carrying more than 100 people caught fire off Libya on 18 March. 45 people were rescued by local fishermen, reportedly some with severe burns and some detained in Libya after interception by the so-called Libyan coast guard. The Ocean Viking operated by SOS Mediterranee that landed 420 survivors in Sicily in February, prevented another tragedy on 20 March. The NGO vessel rescued 116 people from an overcrowded dinghy and according to SOS Mediterranee the survivors have disembarked in Sicily, the organisation stated: “All 116 rescued people, including 51 unaccompanied minors, were tested for Covid-19 by Italian health authorities. A total of 6 persons tested positive via rapid testing”.

A campaign has been launched in support of the so-called El Hiblu 3 – three African teenagers standing accused of terrorism in Malta. They were among 108 people rescued by the Merchant Vessel El Hiblu 1 after departing from Libya. The serious charges on the alleged crime of terrorism is according to the campaign unfounded and unjust as they were merely acting as translators when the group of survivors protested their return to Libya and convinced the crew to land in Malta instead.

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Photo: ECRE

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