On the Iuventa Trial: the criminalisation of solidarity

7 March 2024

Last week, a member of my team travelled to Trapani to observe the concluding arguments in the pre-trial proceedings against the Iuventa search and rescue crew.

The case, which also involves members of Save the Children and MSF, dates back to 2016, with the prosecutors accusing four members of the Iuventa crew of aiding and abetting unauthorised immigration, for which they face up to 20 years in prison.

The prosecution’s case has always centered on supposed collusion between the human rights defenders and ‘smugglers’, with the investigators alleging these took place during three missions to rescue persons in distress at sea.

The investigation began in September 2016, the Iuventa ship was seized in August 2017, and the prosecution pressed charges in early 2021. In May 2022, pre-trial proceedings began at the Court of Trapani.

I formally addressed the Italian state about the case on two occasions. First in October 2020, and again in February 2023. On both instances, the Government responded to my questions, but without properly addressing my concerns.

To build their case, the state used undercover informants and surveillance, bugging the Iuventa ship and wiretapping the phones of human rights defenders. In December 2022, the Government sought to join the case as a civil plaintiff, seeking damages for the supposed crimes committed.

Yet on the first day of the proceedings last week, the prosecutor sought the dismissal of the case, asking the judge for the Iuventa ship, rotting in dock for more than 6 years, to be returned to its owners.

In doing so, they admitted there was no evidence that the Iuventa crew had committed the crime of which they are accused and that the witnesses for the prosecution were incoherent as to the alleged facts and politically motivated in their initial testimonies. Quoting from one of his own witnesses, the prosecutor stated: “They came to sea to save people, that’s it.”

Why then was this case brought to court?

The prosecutor attempted to argue they had reasonable grounds to suspect collusion between the Iuventa crew and supposed smugglers, but that during the pre-trial proceedings it became clear there was no factual basis for their suspicions.

As the lawyers for the crew have stated, this raises serious, troubling questions about the investigative process in Italy. Surveillance and the interception of communications must only be carried out where strict conditions are met. Criminal charges should only be pressed after a thorough investigation and the collection of all available evidence. These principles were clearly not followed in this instance. And yet the shocking inadequacy of the investigation cannot fully explain how things got to this point.

What were the reasonable grounds for suspicion of the Iuventa crew? Between July 2016 and August 2017, they rescued over 14,000 people in distress in the Central Mediterranean. The crew was made entirely of volunteers – human rights defenders – working with other civilian rescue crews in coordination with EU states. From the beginning, the case against them has borne all the hallmarks of the criminalisation of solidarity: designed not only to put an end to their activities, but to denigrate those same activities in the eyes of the public. Why else, for example, were legal documents with the full names of all those targeted in the initial investigation leaked to the Italian media?

As I have previously said, whether openly stated or not, restricting the space for solidarity with migrants has been a policy of successive Italian administrations. Combined with a lack of support for search and rescue by the EU more broadly, as well as a clampdown on migration and asylum in the EU in general, it has contributed to making the Central Mediterranean the world’s deadliest migration route.

During the proceedings, the defence lawyers played recordings of conversations between the Iuventa captain and the Rome MRCC – tasked with coordinating search and rescue in Italian waters – on the days of the alleged criminal activity. They also played recordings of calls between the MRCC and other civilian search and rescue crews. In them, the level of coordination and cooperation between the MRCC and human rights defenders at sea was clear. The recordings, ignored by the prosecution, show what can be done – and what actually was being done – when states work with human rights defenders, when they trust them and see them as allies. This was happening in 2016.

The judge will issue his judgement in the case on 19 April 2024, and can decide whether to send it to full trial or not. The prosecution has no evidence against the defendants and have themselves requested the dismissal of the case. This should be enough in any trial for the charges to be thrown out. But the defendants, and those forced to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life, deserve more.

The Iuventa has been locked in dock for more than six years. As one of the lawyers for the crew stated during the proceedings, these are lost years. There is no way of getting them back. But there can and must be accountability for the damage they have done. That has to be built on a recognition that there was nothing illegal about what the Iuventa crew and the other search and rescue crews did. That far from being a crime, saving lives – solidarity – is a duty.

As one of the Iuventa crew on trial said in the aftermath of the intervention by the prosecution: “the Iuventa should never have been confiscated, and people should not have been left to die. Now, the court in Trapani has the opportunity to halt the toxic impact of this criminalization of solidarity—a situation that should never have been allowed to unfold.”

I join the defenders in the call for the court to make good on this opportunity.