Iuventa Crew Receives Human Rights Award in Switzerland

Iuventa crew
Iuventa crew

Published May 13, 2019 9:37 PM by The Maritime Executive

The crew of the rescue ship Iuventa operated by the German NGO Jugend Rettet has been honored by the Swiss Paul Grüninger Foundation with a human rights award for saving the lives of around 14,000 of men, women and children in the central Mediterranean.

The award is seen as a statement against the criminalization of those helping people at sea and comes whilst the crew is under criminal investigations in Italy for “aiding and abetting illegal immigration.” They face up to 20 years in prison and fines of 15,000 Euro ($16,900) per saved person.

The Iuventa was the first rescue vessel seized in Italy in August 2017. Captain Dariush was master of the Iuventa for three voyages off the Libyan coast: “We’re being charged for saving lives. This is absurd,” he said. “It is European politicians who block any safe way for people in need, so we had to act.” 

The award in Switzerland puts the topic back on the agenda, says Dariush. “This is important because it’s not us who suffer most from the process, but it is the refugees and migrants who suffer and whose lives are at risk.”

One of the crew volunteers Zoe said: “I myself almost drowned once off the coast of Malta. I will never forget this feeling of helplessness, not knowing whether someone will discover my head in the waves.” After seeing pictures of people drowning on television in 2016, she volunteered and at age 20 was one of the youngest crew members. 

The crew says: “Although we have to stand trial, it is us who accuses Europe. We accuse European politicians of turning their backs on people in need. We accuse the E.U. of collaborating with regimes who violate human rights.”

The Italian public prosecutor’s office has been investigating the crew for almost two years. Covert investigators claim to have observed the Iuventa crew cooperating with smugglers. However, the NGO claims that scientists at Goldsmiths, University of London have said there is no evidence for this. “They have compared the accusations of the Italian police with all available data, meteorological measurements, logbooks and recordings of the Reuters agency. In their study for Forensic Architecture, they conclude that the allegations are false.”

The trial is expected to begin in autumn, and it is expected that charges will be brought against the 10 crew members. It is a precedent for Europe, says lead lawyer Nicola Canestrini: “This trial will show whether Europe can continue to stand for fundamental rights and solidarity in the world.” 

Grüninger was a Swiss police officer who permitted safe entry to 3,600 mostly Jewish refugees into Switzerland in 1938 and 1939, thus saving them from certain death in concentration camps. He was convicted and fired from his job. In 1990, long after his death, his family received compensation and created the foundation.

The prize money of 50,000 Swiss francs ($50,000) should make a substantial contribution to the defense of the rescuers, says the U.K-based charity Human Rights at Sea. The legal costs for the case are estimated to be at least 300,000 Euro ($337,000) , and another 200,000 Euro ($225,000) will be spent on campaign and travel costs for the crew.

The opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.