In August 2017, an Italian prosecutor ordered police to seize and impound the Iuventa, a ship operated by the German nonprofit Jugend Rettet, in Trapani, a port in western Sicily. The Iuventa is used to rescue migrants attempting the perilous sea crossing between North Africa and Italy, but the prosecutor said he was investigating the organization for alleged ties to human trafficking operations in Libya. The investigation relied on evidence gathered through the use of police informants, an undercover operative, tapped phone calls, and a recording device that police placed in the Iuventa’s bridge months earlier, and it purported to show the crew of the Iuventa coordinating with Libyan smugglers.
The Italians’ case for holding the ship, however, has been criticized by outside observers, who point to legal irregularities and gaping holes in the prosecutor’s narrative. This week, Forensic Architecture, a London-based research organization, released a new investigation that calls into question the key evidence in the three events pivotal to the case. Researchers with the organization, who shared their findings with The Intercept, argue that Italian police have withheld and distorted evidence in order to paint a picture of collusion. On April 23, a court in Rome will decide Jugend Rettet’s final appeal against the seizure of their ship. Whatever the court decides, the case will set an important precedent for humanitarian operations in the Mediterranean.
At first, for the crew of the Iuventa and other groups like them, the claims of collusion with smugglers were nothing new. Anti-immigrant politicians periodically make similar accusations, calling the nonprofits that operate in the central Mediterranean a “taxi service” for migrants and refugees. In December 2016, a leaked report by Frontex, the European Union border agency, appeared to suggest that another German rescue organization had worked with Libyan smugglers, though eyewitness evidence debunked the agency account.
The Italian and European governments, as well as Frontex, have long pushed the idea that the presence of NGO vessels increases migrant boat departures from Libya, a theory not supported by Frontex’s own data. That was the agency’s reasoning for moving its own patrols farther from the area where most shipwrecks happened — by their logic, fewer patrols meant a more dangerous crossing, and fewer migrants would risk the trip. In practice, the policy only led to more drownings.
With European forces pulling back, NGOs have been left to fill in the gap in patrols. But the seizure of the Iuventa, along with other legal threats and altercations with Libya’s coast guard, have paralyzed rescue work. While the Iuventa has sat in port in Trapani, migrant departures from the Libyan coast have continued, and the number of NGOs operating in the area — where the majority of shipwrecks happen — has dwindled. One year ago, there were close to a dozen humanitarian organizations operating rescue ships in the seas between Libya and Italy. Now there are just a few left. The crew of the Iuventa maintains that the case against them is part of a larger plan to remove humanitarian organizations from the central Mediterranean Sea – and in so doing, to stop migrants from reaching Europe.
The seizure order from the Trapani court is over 500 pages long and filled with transcribed conversations, emails, testimonies from the security contractors and an undercover officer, plus the court’s own analysis. The justification for impounding the Iuventa hinges on the events of three rescues: one on September 10, 2016, and two on June 18, 2017.
For the Iuventa crew, September 10, 2016, was just like any other day, albeit one with many rescues, explained Julian Köberer, a volunteer with the organization. (Disclosure: A co-author of this article, Chloe Haralambous, previously knew several members of the Iuventa’s crew and has provided unpaid advice to the NGO on their case.) There were a handful of other rescue ships in the water that day, Köberer added, including the Vos Hestia, a ship operated by Save the Children. The two ships often worked together, as the Iuventa is smaller and has less capacity to bring people back to Italy, as was typically requested by the Italian coast guard. The Vos Hestia, he explained, usually did the heavy lifting of transporting the rescued.
Aboard the Vos Hestia that day were three people, named in prosecution documents as Pietro Gallo, Floriana Ballestra, and Lucio Montanino, who were working for a security contractor, IMI Security Services, employed by Save the Children. The following day, the three contractors would alert the Italian secret service to something they had witnessed while at sea. Weeks later, the contractors filed an official complaint with the same Sicilian judiciary that would seize the Iuventa nearly a year later.
The security contractors reported that the Vos Hestia joined the Iuventa mid-rescue, at 14 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. The Iuventa’s crew had already completed the transfer of 140 migrants from a rubber boat onto its deck when, from their own positions aboard the Vos Hestia, the contractors say they saw a boat speeding away from the Iuventa and into Libyan territorial waters with two men on board. The two men, they inferred, were traffickers, and the rescue, a drop-off.
In their email to Italian secret services, the contractors cite their “duty as Italian citizens” as motivation for coming forward. But their motivations were also political. The three also reported their findings to leaders in two anti-immigrant parties in Italy: the Five Star Movement and Lega Nord. Shortly after the Iuventa was seized, Floriana Ballestra boasted to Italian journalists that she had been called “the snowflake that triggered an avalanche,” by the righthand man to the leader of the far-right Lega Nord, Matteo Salvini.
Some six months later, Italian police investigators bugged the bridge of the Iuventa, and soon after, planted an undercover agent, Luca Bracco, aboard the Vos Hestia, posing as an employee of IMI Security Services. Two reports authored by Bracco cited alongside the IMI contractors’ initial testimony are the primary evidence of collusion between the Iuventa and human traffickers.
Bracco reported that on the morning of June 18, the Iuventa concluded the rescue of three migrant vessels by towing the empty boats in the direction of the Libyan coast. Left to drift into territorial waters, they were picked up by traffickers waiting in the distance. One of the boats, recognizable from the letters “K-K” on its side, was subsequently reused to transport migrants on June 26. The prosecution cites Bracco’s report as evidence that the Iuventa crew intentionally returned smuggling assets to traffickers to honor a prior agreement.
Later that day, the Iuventa and the Vos Hestia again found themselves at the same coordinates. Bracco reports having seen one of Iuventa’s rescue dinghies speed in the direction of the Libyan coast and stop alongside a small boat. The crew, the undercover officer claimed, had met with traffickers to arrange a delivery. While the rescue dinghy returned to the Iuventa, the other boat sped back to the coast only to reappear a while later, escorting a boat full of migrants. As the rescue was underway, the supposed traffickers, who had remained drifting nearby, recovered the engine from the migrant boat and are purported to have had a “brief conversation” with the crew before waving goodbye and setting off for Libya.
Stills: Forensic Architecture
The investigation by Forensic Architecture has sought to revisit this evidence. Forensic Architecture’s researchers claim that the judiciary has built its case around a series of what they call “factual lies.” This includes using photo evidence in the wrong order and otherwise taking facts out of context, explains Lorenzo Pezzani, one of the researchers. The goal, Pezzani says, is to “construct a narrative in which anything NGOs do starts to seem suspicious.”
Forensic Architecture’s research uses digital models to recreate the original events of the rescues at issue. By cross-referencing the judiciary’s evidence with logbooks, recorded communications with other search and rescue vessels, plus photographs and videos taken by crew and journalists in the area, the researchers aim to recreate events in a space where there are normally few witnesses. In one instance, their analysis of ocean currents and GPS coordinates suggests that a boat the Italians allege was towed toward Libya to return to traffickers was in fact being towed in the opposite direction, to get it out of the way of the rescue. In the case of the alleged drop-off cited by the IMI Security Services contractors, Forensic Architecture notes that the migrant boats rescued by the Iuventa were sunk, undermining the idea that there was a coordinated effort with smugglers.
Lawyers for Jugend Rettet argue that the prosecutor’s case is rife with legal issues. Violeta Moreno-Lax, a law professor at Queen Mary University of London who has been working on the Iuventa case, points out that the Trapani court has not charged anybody with a crime in connection to the case. Rather, Moreno-Lax notes, the prosecution used an Italian anti-Mafia law that allows them to impound the ship indefinitely, a preventative measure for as long as the ship is considered part of an investigation. But she argues that the goal isn’t to convict — it’s to get the ship out of use.
“It’s a strategic non-pressing of charges intended to leave Iuventa out of order,” Moreno-Lax argues, “a sort of engineered limbo that effectively expels Jugend Rettet from the central Mediterranean.”
The recording device on the Iuventa’s bridge, Moreno-Lax adds, was likely illegal. While an Italian judge with a warrant can eavesdrop within Italian territory, the investigators were recording conversations while the ship, which is Dutch-flagged, was both in international waters and docked in Malta. There is no mention of Dutch or Maltese cooperation in the Trapani court document.
The Trapani judiciary did not respond to requests for comment.
The Iuventa isn’t the only humanitarian ship to be seized by an Italian prosecutor. In March, another Sicilian prosecutor impounded the Open Arms, a rescue ship operated by the Spanish nonprofit Proactiva Open Arms, accusing the crew of aiding illegal immigration by disobeying a direct order from the Libyan and Italian coast guards. But this month, a judge reversed that decision and released the Open Arms. Two of Proactiva’s staff are still under investigation for smuggling-related charges.
In the decision, the judge noted the order that the Open Arms disobeyed: to “stay out of sight” of the Libyan rescues. In other words, authorities didn’t want the NGOs involved.
Part of the motivation for discrediting humanitarian operations may be that Europe has pinned its hopes for stopping migration on a rather problematic partner: the Libyan coast guard.
At the beginning of 2017, there was no unified Libyan coast guard. Each city along the coast maintained its own local coast guard, many of which were accused of working with local militias and smugglers. Then, Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti brokered a deal with the Tripoli government. Italy was to give Tripoli tens of millions of euros, and provide them with coast guard ships and training, and in return, the Libyans would seal the border.
The plan did not go smoothly. As Libya began to assert its presence in the central Mediterranean, its coast guard officers were involved in a series of conflicts with humanitarian ships working in the area. In news reports and on social media, accounts surfaced of the Libyan coast guards verbally threatening and firing warning shots at NGO ships operating in international waters, as well as boarding humanitarian ships in search of rescued migrants. Video surfaced of reckless sea maneuvers and of coast guards committing human rights abuses against the migrants they intercepted and returned to Libya.
These accusations were significant and implicated the European governments lending their support: The Libyan coast guard was equipped, funded, trained and, as would later surface in court proceedings, directly coordinated by Italy in some cases. Despite the fact that both the United Nations and the European Commissioner for Human Rights have cited the Libyan coast guard for human rights violations, EU military forces seem eager to cast doubt on the NGOs’ claims. A recent report by EUNAVFOR Med, the European naval operation in the central Mediterranean, obtained by The Intercept, said that its force was “not in the position today to provide a complete and clear picture on the activity carried out at sea by the [Libyan coast guard] Patrol Boats.” The report continues: “The events occurred at sea are almost exclusively based on NGO’s media reports, generally blaming for the allegedly incorrect LCG actions at sea.”
If all NGOs serve as inconvenient witnesses, Julian Köberer, the volunteer aboard the Iuventa, says he thinks smaller organizations like Jugend Rettet and Proactiva Open Arms are easier targets for the Italian prosecutors; larger organizations like Doctors Without Borders or Save the Children are harder to discredit. Either way, Köberer says, the NGO presence in the central Mediterranean has drastically diminished over the past year.
“All this has lead to a situation where a lot of the [rescue] organizations pulled out,” Köberer adds, “I think [the Italian authorities] achieved what they wanted, and I think they’ll try to keep it that way.”
This story was published in coordination with Mediapart in France and Internazionale in Italy.