Opening of pre-trial hearings against Iuventa crew

Alarming developments for civil society


Today, the Tribunal of Trapani in Sicily, opened the preliminary hearings against four crew members of the civil search and rescue ship Iuventa. The judge will decide as to whether the defendants should stand trial for “facilitating illegal entry” of migrants to Italy. The Iuventa crew members, among 21 individual defendants as well as NGOs Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children and a shipping company, could face 20 years in prison for their work that saved thousands of lives in the Mediterranean. ECCHR is partnering with several other organizations to closely monitor the proceedings, however, the prosecution blocked all requests by the public to attend today’s session.

“Equating civil rescue with aiding and abetting human smuggling is a gross attempt to weaponize laws meant to protect vulnerable people on the move. Civil society stepped in because national and European authorities fail to fulfil their international obligations in the Mediterranean. This case exemplifies an alarming trend of criminalizing vital human rights defense,” states Allison West, Senior Legal Advisor at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). International maritime and human rights law obliges vessels to aid people in distress at sea. Many of those taking to the sea from Libya do so to escape violence and conditions ECCHR argues amount to crimes against humanity.

ECCHR, Giuristi Democratici, Swiss Democratic Lawyers, European Democratic Lawyers and the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy & World Human Rights filed applications to monitor the pre-trial proceedings, which are usually closed. While the defendants welcomed the prospect of public observation and also the judge signaled that he has no objection, the prosecution insisted on keeping international observers out of the courtroom today.

“The trial in Trapani is of utmost importance not only for the defendants, but for civil society as a whole as it contributes to the shrinking of civic space for human rights defense. This should not happen behind closed doors – we need a public debate and hope for the prosecutors to reconsider their position,” says Annina Mullis of the Swiss Democratic Lawyers. ECCHR and the other organizations will proceed with observing the preliminary hearings, filing updates for the public on our website. Today's session ended after around three hours.

After the Iuventa had rescued more than 14,000 people in 2016 and 2017, the Prosecutor of Trapani ordered the ship to be seized in August 2017 and opened criminal investigations into the crew. The five-year investigations involved outrageous practices like wiretapping of crew members, lawyers and journalists. Crew members were also subjected to a political smear attempting to publicly discredit them and their work in Italy.

In 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders publicly condemned the investigations in Italy and demanded for all charges to be dropped. In 2019, ECCHR filed a complaint letter stating that the investigations violate the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. Regardless, the prosecutor decided to press charges in 2022.

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ECCHR is an independent, non-profit legal and educational organization dedicated to enforcing civil and human rights worldwide. It was founded in 2007 by Wolfgang Kaleck and other international human rights lawyers to protect and enforce the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other human rights declarations and national constitutions, through legal means.

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