Italian Prosecutor Opens Inquiry into Rescue NGOs

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By MarEx 2017-08-15 20:51:12

The chief prosecutor in the port of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, has reportedly begun an investigation into whether maritime migrant rescue NGOs may have engaged in a "criminal association" to liaise with human traffickers and facilitate illegal immigration. Unlike an ongoing inquiry run by the Trapani prosecutor's office into the conduct of individual NGO crewmembers, Zuccaro's focus will be on the possibility of organized, sustained collaboration – a more serious charge. 

Zuccaro is a divisive figure in Italian politics, and has previously alleged that NGOs may be collaborating with human traffickers; in April, he said that he had no admissible evidence of the charge. 

The investigation is the latest in a series of blows to NGOs’ efforts to reduce casualties from maritime migration. Last weekend, three of these organizations – Doctors Without Borders, Sea Eye and Save the Children – decided to suspend their operations due to threats from the Libyan military. The UN-backed Libyan government has threatened to use force to expel NGOs from a "rescue zone" extending well beyond the limits of Libya’s territorial seas. NGO rescue vessels often operate just outside the 12-nm line.

On Tuesday, a Reuters photographer aboard the NGO rescue vessel Golfo Azzurro reported that a Libyan coast guard vessel threatened to "target" the Azzurro if she did not head into port at Tripoli. The incident occurred 27 nm off the Libyan coastline in international waters. 

"You are sailing in our waters for months now and you are conducting activities that are causing problems to Libyan state sovereignty," a Libyan officer warned the Azzurro in a radio transmission. "Therefore I ask you to alter your course toward Tripoli port. If you do not obey the orders right now . . . you will be targeted."

Instead, the Azzurro headed away from Libyan shores. As of Tuesday night she was under way, bound for Malta.