New judiciary acquittal coming for the “Mare Jonio” ship

“Rescue at sea cannot be criminalised; it is an obligation”.

Once again, a request has been made to dismiss the absurd charge of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration.” But there’s more: according to the Agrigento Public Prosecutor’s Office, the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, financed by the Italian government, cannot rescue anyone, because it actually captures and deports. And the disgraceful attempts to block civilian rescue ships on administrative pretexts, based on rules that “do not exist in Italian law”, are swept under the carpet.

The Agrigento Public Prosecutor’s Office has asked the Judge for Preliminary Investigations for the complete acquittal from all charges of the Commander of the ship Mare Jonio and the Head of Mission of MEDITERRANEA Saving Humans for the rescue operation carried out on 9th  May 2019. It is therefore moving towards dismissal for Captain Massimiliano Napolitano and coordinator and shipowner Beppe Caccia, who had been under investigation for two and a half years for crimes and offences such as “aggravated aiding and abetting illegal immigration” and two violations of the Navigation Code.

On 9th May 2019, the Mare Jonio ship, engaged in an observation and monitoring mission in the central Mediterranean, spotted in international waters in the SAR area attributed to Libya, about 35 miles north of Zuara, a small dinghy overloaded with thirty people, including two pregnant women, a 2-year-old girl and several unaccompanied minors. The rubber boat was taking on water and its engine had broken down: a few more hours and it would have sunk. The people on board, from Chad, Bangladesh, Sudan, Cameroon, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, who had no safety equipment at all, told the investigators that, certain of death, they had started to pray. Once rescued on board our ship, the Mare Jonio refused any contact with the Libyan authorities and disobeyed orders from the Italian Ministry of the Interior to hand over those survivors to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard in Tripoli. Instead, the Mare Jonio sailed north, disembarking all 30 rescued people the next morning in the safe port of Lampedusa. A police operation by the Guardia di Finanza, under the orders of the Viminale (Italian Ministry of the Interior), led to the confiscation of the ship, which lasted until the following August, and the opening of investigations against the Captain and the Head of Mission.

Thanks to the excellent work of our lawyers Serena Romano and Fabio Lanfranca, and after two and a half years of in-depth investigations, the Agrigento Public Prosecutor’s Office concluded that our behaviour and choices were absolutely legitimate, in that we had “fulfilled our duty to rescue people in danger of their lives at sea” and their subsequent disembarkation in a safe port. But the request for acquittal, signed by Public Prosecutors Salvatore Vella and Cecilia Baravelli, also states three things of crucial importance.

The first: given the situation in Libya and the criminal behaviour of the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, it was right and proper not to communicate, let alone submit to the coordination of the authorities in Tripoli. Secondly, it was just as right and legitimate to request the safe port of disembarkation (“Place of Safety”) from the Italian authorities alone and to head to Lampedusa without hesitation. The third, referring to alleged violations of the Navigation Code for failure to comply with the Palermo Maritime Directorate’s Warning to “carry out rescue operations at sea in a stable and organised manner” without having obtained “the necessary authorisations and certifications” for the ship. A complaint which, since then, had paved the way for numerous cases of inspections and “administrative detentions” of civil fleet ships engaged in rescue activities in the Mediterranean. The Prosecutor’s Office of Agrigento clearly states that “the Mare Jonio was not required to obtain any SAR certification (…) since there is no prior certification in the Italian legislation for civilian vessels to carry out this activity’, just as the idea of establishing ‘a maximum number of shipwrecked people that can be boarded’ during a rescue operation is not admissible, as this is a matter for the exclusive assessment of the Commander of the vessel involved.

These are extraordinarily relevant points which, taken as a whole, confirm the full legitimacy of the work of the organisations and ships of the civil fleet engaged in the central Mediterranean. Once again, an enquiry into our actions is coming to a conclusion, confirming that there was nothing “unlawful” or “criminally relevant” in our choices. On the contrary, they have been and continue to be fair and correct in the face of continuing violations of fundamental rights and of international and national law, and of the outright illegal and criminal behaviour of States. In the words of the Agrigento Public Prosecutors: “certainly the activity of saving human lives at sea cannot be criminalised per se, because constitutes indeed a legal obligation for every seafarer”.



20th October 2021