Since the seizure of IUVENTA, the criminalization of people on the move and those showing solidarity seems to be a common recipe to consolidate Fortress Europe. It has become a daily reality for those who defend the most fundamental human rights like the right to life and physical integrity.
But first and foremost these policies have deadly consequences for those people who are forced by war, expulsion, land theft and resource exploitation to seek refuge, security and protection in Europe - winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Formal" or "actual" criminal prosecution is used extensively to intimidate people and to rob them of their financial and material resources. Rescue ships are prevented from leaving the port. Those who show solidarity end up in pre-trial detention, get sentenced to prison, or are stuck in long and expensive trials... Help for people in need is actively prevented.
These legal methods and political tactics, which seem to be commonplace today - whether in silence or actively pursued - were first tested in the pilot case of the rescue ship IUVENTA.
The rescue ship IUVENTA, which was operated by the Berlin association "Jugend Rettet" in 2015/2016, was seized on Lampedusa on August 2, 2017. Italian authorities argued that the seizure was “pre-emptive”; a measure geared towards preventing its ‘possible’ future use to ‘criminal ends’.
Previously, the IUVENTA - operated in a joint effort by more than 200 volunteers on board and supported by many thousands on shore - was deployed in 16 rescue missions off the coast of Libya between August 2016 and August 2017, saving more than 14,000 lives.
IUVENTA in a dramatic rescue operation – April 2017
Without their knowledge, the IUVENTA and its crew had been under investigation since late 2016, following complaints made by security staff on board another NGO vessel. Their reports of supposed ‘anomalies’ in IUVENTA’s operations were immediately communicated to: AISE (Italian Secret Service), Salvini (far right and Lega delegate) and Di Battista (head of 5-star movement). Salvini then personally contacted them and asked them to collect more material in order to crack down on the IUVENTA crew.
It is not surprising that those security workers were looking for these "allies" - for some of them the connections to right-wing populist and right-wing extremist circles, like the identitarian movement in Italy, could be proven.
However, there are no grounds whatsoever for what they supposedly saw with their own eyes: the cooperation of IUVENTA with smugglers and traffickers. Their reports rather are a collage of personal opinions concerning the work of maritime rescue NGOs. They consist of repetitions of well-known accusations of right-wing populist demagogues, concealment of observations that would exonerate and misinterpretations of events. Yet these were obviously sufficient to place the IUVENTA at the centre of an immense investigation and surveillance operation that drew in multiple police forces. Telephones were tapped and the IUVENTA bridge was bugged in order to find 'evidence' for the informants' allegations.
An undercover operative, disguised as a security guard and as a colleague of Salvinis informants, was deployed on exactly the same ship. He took pictures and wrote reports. Neither this agent found any evidence. But the resulting police dossier served as "support for the initial suspicion" and as legitimisation for the seizure of the ship as well as for today's investigations. With his obvious misinterpretations, his more than sloppy investigative work, and the snapshots taken out of context he presents a false picture of the situation.
There is no evidence to support the assertion that we have cooperated with smugglers. False claims, contradictions, moments taken out of context, personal opinions and subjective misassessments - they alone form the basis for confiscating a rescue ship and for prosecuting its crew.
Apart from formally ‘justifying’ the ship’s seizure, this material also formed the basis for a toxic narrative about something that in reality never happened: the connection between the crews of IUVENTA and the smuggling cartel.
The seizure provided fodder for a smear campaign launched against all sea rescue NGOs by conservative, populist and right-wing extremist parties across Europe, that was targeting NGOs saving lives at sea and accused them of smuggling migrants to Italy.
Much of the media craze surrounding these allegations came to hinge on the case of the IUVENTA, one of the smallest and therefore most vulnerable of the NGOs operating in the Central Mediterranean.
The IUVENTA crew can only express their outrage and dismay that such groundless accusations are cynically deployed to prevent civil society actors from stepping in where governments are knowingly failing to save lives at sea. Without anything close to “proof” to substantiate these accusations, we can only conclude that the aim has been to provide a test ground for the criminalization of all SAR NGOs in the Mediterranean and the destruction of their reputations.
In this sense, the case is reminiscent of the 2004 Cap Anamur case, in which the NGO’s ship was seized and the crew criminalized after a rescue of 37 people. Five years later, they were all acquitted. But the case was damaging: a toxic narrative about the cooperation between NGOs and smuggler was launched and has not lost its power to this day, as the IUVENTA case shows.
IUVENTA in December 2018 still seized at the port of Trappani. Photo: 2018 – Jasper Kettner
For our part, we can only repeat that since we first launched, our operations have been conducted in full compliance with the Law of the Sea and have been authorised and coordinated by the Italian MRCC Rome (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre operated by the Italian Coast Guard). We have never collaborated with smugglers in any form, and we strongly condemn their unscrupulous business which preys on suffering, endangers lives, and has caused thousands of deaths at sea.
Investigations against the Crew
The seizure of the vessel IUVENTA came amid a protracted media war against NGOs that formed the cornerstone of election campaigns run by the Italian right-wing parties. The notice of the official investigation came in June 2018, shortly after the election of those parties to office, and following a decision to shut off Italian ports to ships carrying rescued migrants. Minister of Interior, Matteo Salvini of the far-right party Lega, has repeatedly called for the seizure of all NGO rescue vessels – in brazen violation of international law – and the prosecution of their crews, and is seeking to impose heavy fines for bringing migrants to Italian shores.
The timeframe of the investigation spans between July 2016 and August 2017. We stand by what we did in that period, which is rescuing and rendering assistance to over 14,000 people in distress at sea. - We could no longer stand by and watch people disappearing in the Mediterranean mass grave. We chose to be eyewitnesses, reporters, and a safe harbour for thousands of people on the move.
Each and every one of the IUVENTA10 was directly involved either in the rescues of people at sea or in coordinating rescue operations. These operations were at all times authorized and coordinated exclusively by the responsible MRCC in Rome (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre). The IUVENTA crews have always operated in strict compliance with International and Maritime Law. By using Italian Antimafia law to form the legal grounds against us, the prosecutor is attempting to overwrite both International Law and the Geneva Convention.
We solidarians – representatives of civil society – are a remaining tear in the fabric of Fortress Europe. For the Nobel Peace Prize winner Europe, our mere presence constitutes a threat. In the course of 2018 and 2019 there was a dramatic escalation in harassment, prosecutions, restrictions and penalties against a variety of civil society actors. The Institute of Race Relations reports more than 100 cases from around Europe concerning people prosecuted for “crimes of solidarity”.
But the core injustice associated with our proceedings is not the criminalisation of EU citizens* and NGOs. It is the misery and deadly consequence of this prosecution that manifests itself daily at the external and internal borders of Europe. This is what turned the Mediterranean into the deadliest border of the world.
We are raising our voices on behalf of those less privileged, who continue to die every day as they try to assume their right to asylum and reach safety on European shores. It is not up to us to judge the reasons why people migrate.
It was, is, and will remain the task of us all to save human lives wherever possible, to offer protection to those who need it, to treat everyone with dignity, respect and esteem - and to fight with them for the world in which we want to live - in which everyone can live!
Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture – an Institute based at Goldsmiths, University of London – offers a forensic counter-investigation which fully refutes the allegations which led to the seizure of the IUVENTA and which formed the legal grounds of the criminal investigation against us.
“The video presented here offers a counter-investigation of the authorities’ version, and a refutation of their accusations. While the latter operate by decontextualizing factual elements and recombining them into a spurious chain of events, our analysis attempts instead to cross-reference all elements of evidence into a coherent spatio-temporal model. This is made possible by the exponential increase in video documentation recorded by NGOs and other actors at sea. From our reconstruction, it appears that the Iuventa crew did not return empty boats for re-use, nor communicated with anyone potentially connected with smuggling networks. The materials we have reviewed further show the Iuventa crew’s professionalism and commitment to saving lives at sea.”
The preparatory work of Forensic Architecture led to a whole series of investigative and critical articles which shed light on the measures of the Italian authorities. One of them is the article by the Zeit-online reporter Bartholomäus von Laffert. He interviewed one of the former security workers of IMI Security - who is also one of the main witnesses of the prosecution: Pietro Gallo. The interview and the journalist's research clearly show that this man has neither evidence for his allegations nor did he see anything of importance at the time.
“Yes, I’m co-responsible for this situation.” Gallo also says: “I’ve never seen the NGOs cooperate with the smugglers…”