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
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
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
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.
co-responsible for this situation.” Gallo also says: “I’ve never seen the
NGOs cooperate with the smugglers…”