VOS Thalassa case: historic sentence by Italian high court



On December 16th, Italy’s highest court overturned the sentence issued by Palermo’s Court of Appeal in the conviction of two shipwrecked for the crimes of aiding and abetting illegal immigration, violence, and forceful resistance of a public official. The two had been rescued by the tug boat, Vos Thalassa, and opposed being returned to Libya while on board the rescue boat.

Trapani’s Preliminary Investigation judge had held that the acts were justified as self-defense because the two young people, having fled the Libyan hell, had acted to save themselves and the other survivors from the risks of new, serious threats to their right to live, physical safety and sexual integrity, and to protect their right to be taken to a place of safety and obtain international protection.

Palermo’s Court of Appeal, on June 3, 2020, amended the decision of acquittal and sentenced the two young refugees to three years and six months in prison with a fine of 52,000 euros believing the district court judge’s approach was “ideological” pointing out that “these problems must be adequately resolved in the only context designated for such matters, namely the arena of inter-state policy debate.”

Departing from such an approach, the Supreme Court today stated, “The migrant rescued at sea, asserting their right to not be re-fouled and opposing being returned to the country of Libya, was justified in resisting a public official,” thus reaffirming that the enforcement of human rights is based on the rules of international law which ensures the protection of human life and is not a state authority matter.

We are very satisfied with this important statement which is in line with the position previously expressed by Commander Rackete. Moreover, it is in line with the much earlier verdict in Hirsi Jamaa and others v. Italy (February 23, 2012) that reiterates, yet again, rescue operations at sea which result in the return of survivors to Libya constitute a breach of the principle of non-refoulement and violate the rights of the people rescued who should be taken to a place of safety where their lives are no longer in danger and respect of their fundamental rights is guaranteed.

Fabio Lanfranca, Esq. and Serena Romano, Esq.