An Italian police officer stands by the Iuventa rescue ship, run by the German NGO Jugend Rettet, in Trapani, Italy, on Aug. 4, 2017.

Rebel Boat

Hacked Phones, Undercover Cops, and Conspiracy Theories: Inside Italy’s Crackdown on Humanitarian Rescue

An Italian police officer stands near the Iuventa rescue ship run by Jugend Rettet in Trapani, Italy, on Aug. 4, 2017. Photo: Bellina Francesco/AFP via Getty Images

The crisis started with an email: It was September 2016 and Pietro Gallo, a former police officer from Rome, was writing the Italian foreign intelligence service. He was in his cabin aboard the VOS Hestia, a 200-foot rescue ship, on the tail end of a mission patrolling international waters off the coast of Libya. Two colleagues, Floriana Ballestra and Lucio Montanino, also ex-cops, huddled nearby. The three worked as security guards for the international charity Save the Children, which ran the VOS Hestia, and they were writing to report a crime.

Gallo had found a generic email address for the intelligence service after a few minutes of Google searching. The three explained that they had witnessed suspicious activities by humanitarian NGOs working near the Libyan coast. They had tried contacting police in the Sicilian port of Trapani, but they believed the police weren’t acting because the whole affair was too big. “In the Mediterranean, the shit is boiling,” Gallo later told Montanino.

Nearly 200,000 people arrived in Italy by sea that year after fleeing Libya aboard inflatable rubber dinghies or repurposed wooden fishing boats. More often than not, they were rescued by European coast guard vessels or humanitarian organizations long before reaching Italian waters. Gallo looked at a map of the Mediterranean Sea. The ships seemed to pick people up so close to the African coast and then bring them all the way to Europe. The towering Vos Hestia was one of over a dozen humanitarian assets patrolling the area. He wondered: Who was behind the organizations sending ships to sea? How could they have so much money? Gallo had his doubts, but he knew one thing: Something sketchy was going on, and it was his duty to find out what.

“In the Mediterranean, the shit is boiling.”

Gallo later said that he wanted to be “like a journalist” and expose what was happening in the Central Mediterranean. Wiretapped conversations show that he was also hoping to recover his police job — he had previously been expelled for misconduct — or even get a position as an undercover agent. Speaking to Montanino, he fantasized about a private meeting with the head of Italy’s national police, the Polizia di Stato, which answers to the Ministry of the Interior. “I want to tell them, ‘Look, since I don’t think this stuff at sea with these immigrants will be over anytime soon,’” Gallo told his colleague, “‘we can sign a contract with the ministry — you place us, I don’t know, on a Red Cross ship, and we’ll be your spies.’”

Gallo, Ballestra, and Montanino never got a response to their email. But it eventually made its way into Italy’s halls of power at a moment of growing resentment over the role of rescue NGOs. Anti-immigration politicians were circulating theories about the supposed “pull factor” the organizations represented, and Gallo’s message offered up a target. The evidence resulting from his self-conceived undercover operations wound up on the desks of politicians in Rome and Brussels. It reached the Warsaw headquarters of Frontex, the European Union’s border and coast guard agency. And, importantly, it ended up in the hands of anti-mafia prosecutors charged with coordinating migration-related investigations throughout Italy.

The resulting inquiry would involve scores of wiretaps, rescue ships bugged with secret microphones, and an undercover police officer placed on board the VOS Hestia, all part of a sprawling investigation into the work of humanitarian organizations. According to wiretapped conversations, Gallo believed that NGOs working to save lives at sea were funded by “globalist elites” and in cahoots with Libyan smugglers.

Gallo’s email singled out one organization as particularly suspect: Jugend Rettet, a small German nonprofit that operated a rescue ship known as the Iuventa. Now, four members of Jugend Rettet are on trial in Sicily for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Prosecutors allege that they coordinated directly with smugglers to arrange the delivery of migrants to Italy. If convicted, they stand to serve up to 20 years in prison each and would be the first humanitarian rescuers in Europe ever convicted of a crime for their work. Seventeen other aid workers and professional mariners are facing the same and other charges related to their rescue efforts. Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, are charged as organizations, as is the company that owned the ships they leased.

A collection of 30,000 pages of court documents obtained by The Intercept sheds light on the magnitude of this case, the largest of its kind in European history. The full court file spans over four years of investigations and includes transcripts of wiretaps, clandestine recordings, and police interrogations; material scraped from seized electronic devices; and reports written by an undercover officer.

The documents show how Italian anti-mafia prosecutors went to great lengths to dig up dirt on humanitarian rescue organizations and their crews. Authorities listened in on the legally protected conversations of journalists and lawyers and hired a company to remotely hack at least two mobile phones using powerful surveillance software. The court documents also show how officials from Italy’s Interior Ministry used these investigations as a tool for leverage over humanitarian organizations.

All this while police were working to prove what is, in effect, a conspiracy theory: that humanitarian NGOs in the Central Mediterranean are profiting off migration by colluding with smugglers in Libya.

Migrants and refugees are transferred from the Topaz Responder ship run by Maltese NGO "Moas" and the Italian Red Cross to the Vos Hestia ship run by NGO "Save the Children", on November 4, 2016, a day after a rescue operation off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Maltese NGO Moas and the Italian Red Cross transfer migrants and refugees to the VOS Hestia, run by Save the Children, after a rescue operation off the Libyan coast on Nov. 4, 2016.

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

Man Overboard

Pietro Gallo is stocky and bald and speaks with the resigned tone of someone who has told his story many times. For a moment, Gallo had the ear of high-level figures on the Italian far right, fielding calls from Matteo Salvini, an anti-immigration hard-liner who went on to become interior minister. But, Gallo says, Salvini and the rest only used him to push their own agendas.

“Of course I feel used,” he said with a shrug. We spoke to Gallo in the back patio of a hotel at Rome’s airport. “So many people have been professionally rewarded over this story: in the government, in the police. Many were punished, but many were rewarded.”

Key Takeaways
  • A collection of 30,000 pages of court records obtained by The Intercept sheds light on Italy’s sprawling investigation into the work of humanitarian rescue NGOs.
  • Authorities employed wiretaps, hidden microphones, and an undercover cop, listening in on conversations protected by attorney-client privilege and journalists’ calls with sources.
  • Police hired the Italian company RCS Lab to remotely hack the phones of two Médecins Sans Frontières employees.
  • Prosecutors relied on the wild speculation of security guards aboard ships to justify an ever-widening net of surveillance.

Gallo never set out to work on humanitarian ships. But he was fired from the police department in Rome after being accused of planting fake drugs in the car of a romantic rival. (Gallo said he is still challenging the dismissal.) Then in 2016, he got a call from IMI Security Service, a private security company owned by a man named Cristian Ricci. A search-and-rescue organization was hiring security staff for its vessel, Gallo was told. Weeks earlier, in international waters off the coast of Libya, unidentified armed men had fired at and boarded a rescue ship chartered by MSF, and Save the Children feared that similar incidents could happen again.

Gallo said he started noticing problems soon after going aboard the VOS Hestia. At first, he remembers, there was a divide between the crew — mostly activists and professional mariners — and his team of former police officers working security. The rescues were hectic. Dinghies were often surrounded: by European military vessels, the Libyan coast guard, and sometimes Libyan fishermen hoping to steal the dinghies’ engines or return boats back to the coast for a fee. European authorities consider these “engine fishers,” as they’re known by humanitarian workers, to be part of the Libyan smuggling apparatus.


Italy Imprisons Refugees Who Were Forced to Pilot Smuggling Boats at Gunpoint

Rescuers document their work at sea with helmet-mounted cameras and photographers aboard ships. Italian police use these images to identify the people piloting dinghies, who are routinely arrested on smuggling charges and sometimes given decadeslong prison sentences. According to internal police documents, prosecutors were aware as early as 2015 that most dinghy drivers were migrants with no link to Libyan smugglers, but they continued their campaign of arrests anyway.

Some of the images from rescues carried out by the VOS Hestia were never handed over to the authorities. This infuriated Gallo. The photos and videos were “systematically hidden,” he later told investigators, and then used “for promotional purposes.”

Weeks after the three ex-cops sent their email, tension was brewing aboard the VOS Hestia. According to police reports, on October 12, 2016, there was a physical fight on board between Ballestra and Montanino. Montanino hit Ballestra with a plastic plate during an argument over work shifts. Afterward, Ballestra went to the police in Trapani to report her colleague. Gallo and Ballestra both maintain that the fight wasn’t staged, but they acknowledge using it as a pretext to talk to law enforcement. “With the excuse of Lucio, she went to the police,” Gallo said of Ballestra, “to tell them what really happened on board.”

Gallo vividly remembers the meeting with police. Ballestra called him from the station, saying that the officers wanted to hear more about the suspicious activities they had witnessed. When Gallo arrived, the director of the Trapani investigative unit asked more questions about humanitarian organizations than about the fight. Finally, Gallo thought, someone was listening. The two security guards complained that Save the Children had imposed a code of silence, prohibiting crew members from talking to law enforcement. Gallo said that looking at the radar of the VOS Hestia, he noticed that the Iuventa sailed particularly close to the Libyan coast. He gave the police a copy of his email to the intelligence service. They would later share it with a Trapani prosecutor working with Italy’s anti-mafia directorate, the national body that in turn collaborates with Europol, Frontex, and Operation Sophia, an EU naval mission in the Central Mediterranean.

Gallo said he suggested that police send an undercover agent aboard the VOS Hestia via a contract with his employer, IMI Security Services. “‘You have Ricci hire him and send him up there, and he sees what’s really going on,’” Gallo remembers saying. “And then later that’s what happened.”

A picture taken on November 4, 2016 shows a rescuers standing on a ship, with on the background, the "Iuventa", a rescue ship run by young German NGO "Jugend Rettet" (Youth Saves), sailing off the Libyan coast during a rescue mission in the Mediterranean sea. Italian authorities on August 2, 2017 impounded a German NGO's migrant rescue boat on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration, police said. The Iuventa, operated by the Jugend Rettet organisation, was impounded on the Italian island of Lampedusa on the orders of a prosecutor based in Trapani, Sicily, the police said in a statement. / AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)

A rescuer stands on a ship on Nov. 4, 2016, with the Iuventa, a vessel run by the German NGO Jugend Rettet, in the background.

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

Easter Mayday

The Iuventa was the first and only humanitarian rescue ship in the Central Mediterranean to ever call a mayday for itself. It was April 2017, seven months after Gallo and the others sent their email. The Iuventa was 24 nautical miles off the coast of Libya, in the stretch of international waters where most Mediterranean shipwrecks take place. It was Easter, and there were no Italian coast guard ships in the area.

And that weekend, people were fleeing Libya by the thousands.

Earlier that year, the EU had decided to pull back its coast guard rescue patrols to at least half a day’s sail from the search-and-rescue zone. Making the journey more dangerous would deter future departures, the logic went. Coast guard officers also began a campaign of destroying migrants’ boats after rescues to prevent smugglers from using them again. In February, Italy had signed an agreement with the fledgling United Nations-backed Libyan government to equip and train a new Libyan coast guard to contain departures.

In response, Libyan smugglers began pushing more people to sea at once. They were given shoddier boats with more people on board and barely enough fuel to make it out of Libyan territorial waters. According to a 2017 report from Operation Sophia, that summer was characterized by “mass launches with a large number of vessels in convoy.” The withdrawal of coast guard patrols left humanitarian vessels scrambling to fill the void.

The Iuventa is a small ship compared to other NGO rescue assets. It is just under 100 feet long and painted bright blue. Because of its size, it couldn’t accommodate a large number of rescued people on board. More often the Iuventa crew carried out rescues and then transferred people to larger humanitarian ships, like the VOS Hestia, or ships from the Italian coast guard. The Iuventa crew was also younger, more political, and more willing to disobey authorities in the name of humanitarian rescue. They operated closer to the Libyan border than other organizations, eliciting a mix of admiration and suspicion. In one wiretapped conversation, an employee of MSF described the Iuventa as a “rebel boat.”

In one wiretapped conversation, an employee of MSF described the Iuventa as a “rebel boat.”

While Gallo harbored doubts about the Iuventa, he was impressed by the crew’s willingness to carry out risky rescues, even in Libyan waters when necessary. “They were brave, fearless professionals,” he remembered. “They didn’t give a damn.”

At sea that Easter weekend, the Iuventa crew realized they had a problem: Their ship was surrounded by rubber boats in distress, and they didn’t have space to take everyone on board. The crew inflated their life rafts and tied them together, then secured that structure to the ship to create more space. It was a quick solution that worked while the sea was calm, but the weather was about to change.

Stefano Spinelli remembers this weekend well. Spinelli was head of a medical NGO called Rainbow for Africa, which placed doctors aboard the Iuventa to provide medical care to rescued migrants. As one of the few Italians working with a largely German NGO, he was responsible for liaising with the Italian coast guard.

Eating dinner in his hometown of Pisa, Spinelli got a frantic phone call from Jugend Rettet’s headquarters in Berlin. They explained that a storm was coming, and the lifeboats had begun to capsize. The crew of the Iuventa had decided to take everybody — 300 people — aboard the ship.

“The captain told me that the Iuventa was unable to navigate anymore, that we were forced to send out a mayday,” Spinelli remembered. “If a [search-and-rescue] asset sends out a mayday, it’s a big deal.”

Fortunately, Spinelli said, Italy’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, run by the coast guard in Rome, was able to divert a commercial tanker to block the waves. The center tried to send coast guard ships to rescue the Iuventa, but each time they did, those ships, too, found migrants along the way and had to initiate rescue. The Iuventa was eventually rescued by the VOS Hestia and another humanitarian vessel.

For Spinelli, the mayday episode was a point of inflection. “If you are unable to safely perform a rescue, you have no reason to be there,” he said. “We started thinking, are we doing the right operation, or are we unable because we are too small?” He decided that his organization would part ways with Jugend Rettet and sent an email to top Italian coast guard officers distancing himself from the Iuventa.

In a hearing held by the defense committee of the Italian Senate the following month, a Trapani prosecutor revealed that certain individuals from Mediterranean rescue organizations were under investigation but gave no specifics. Behind closed doors, the crew of the Iuventa began to suspect that legal problems could be looming.

According to the minutes of a May 2017 meeting among multiple humanitarian organizations, some voiced concern about the “isolation of smaller NGOs at sea and lack of funds to explore legal options.” Jugend Rettet said they felt the coast guard center wanted them out of the search-and-rescue zone following the mayday incident.

With Italy’s general election approaching in early 2018, migration and the role of rescue NGOs were becoming hot-button campaign issues. Gallo and Ballestra saw an opportunity: Together, they reached out to major party leaders offering up their insider information. Salvini, head of the far-right Lega party, responded. He first called Gallo personally and later arranged a channel for him to file reports. Salvini was campaigning on a hard anti-immigration platform; in one interview, he claimed that there were weapons and drugs on some humanitarian vessels, citing sources aboard the ships.

The ex-cops’ speculation about illicit activity in the Mediterranean was not only informing national politics — their report to the police in Trapani had since ballooned into an investigation coordinated by a special operations division of the national police. When they found out that the division had assumed control, Gallo and Ballestra congratulated each other. “We did a good job,” Gallo said in a wiretapped conversation. Ballestra agreed: “We deserve a prize.”

Still, the investigation was just beginning. Soon, police would be listening to Spinelli’s phone calls and reading his emails as he criticized the Iuventa crew, and they would have an undercover officer aboard the VOS Hestia.

Migrants during disembarking from Vos Hestia of Save the Children in the port of Crotone, Italy, on June 6, 2021.

Migrants disembark from the VOS Hestia in the port of Crotone, Italy, on June 6, 2021.

Fishing Expedition

Sicilian police and prosecutors wiretapped the phones of at least 40 individuals as part of their investigation, including employees of Jugend Rettet, MSF, and Save the Children, as well as security contractors aboard the VOS Hestia, most of whom were never officially under investigation or suspected of having committed any crime. An MSF office in Sicily was bugged, and hidden microphones were placed aboard three ships: the VOS Hestia, the VOS Prudence of MSF, and the Iuventa. Police also wiretapped human rights lawyers and journalists working on migration issues — conversations with clients and sources that, according to attorneys representing Jugend Rettet and MSF, are supposed to be protected from police scrutiny under Italian law. Lawyers for the two NGOs said they plan to contest the legal basis for this surveillance.

According to the court documents, police in Trapani also hired a company in Milan, RCS Lab, to remotely hack the mobile phones of two MSF employees, using phishing techniques to install software capable of extracting data from their devices and monitoring them in real time via their phones’ microphones. RCS, which offers hacking and surveillance services to clients across the globe, has drawn scrutiny from a European parliamentary committee created in the wake of revelations about the Pegasus spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO Group.

Prosecutors wiretapped Gallo himself for at least seven months without his knowledge. As they sought to expand their surveillance, court documents show, Gallo’s at times paranoid conversations with colleagues about the true motives of NGO workers were frequently cited as evidence. In one call, Gallo suggested that “powerful international figures” were financing migration from Libya. In another, Montanino told Gallo that the VOS Hestia rescued boats that were faring just fine in “perfect sailing conditions.” Throughout the investigation, conversations like these were used to justify ongoing surveillance of an increasing number of people.

“Investigators abused their power to figure out what I was working on.”

One of these people was Moussa Zerai, a priest and human rights activist from Eritrea. Police listened in as he spoke to his lawyer, an Italian senator, journalists, and, he told press when the wiretapping news first broke, multiple Vatican diplomats. Zerai came under investigation after Gallo mentioned his name to the police: His phone number circulated among Eritrean refugees, who often called him when in distress at sea. Zerai said he referred these cases to the Italian coast guard as required by international maritime law. In the wiretaps, many of Zerai’s calls were marked as “very important,” but neither Zerai nor anyone he was wiretapped speaking to was ever charged with a crime.

“They not only listened to my conversations with friends and family, but also my confidential calls with sources,” said Nancy Porsia, one of the journalists wiretapped by police. “Free journalism is essential for democracy; it is very serious that they had access to my conversations with sources.” Porsia is one of Europe’s leading experts on migration and was the first journalist to report that Libyan coast guard officials supported by Italy and the EU were themselves involved in human trafficking.

Police wiretapped Porsia’s conversations over the course of six months, according to the court files, requesting multiple extensions of the 15-day legal limit in order to gather information on her sources. “Investigators abused their power to figure out what I was working on,” Porsia said.

Serena Romano, a criminal lawyer in Palermo, Sicily, was wiretapped while speaking about the defense strategy of one of her clients. “When I found out that conversations of mine covered by attorney-client privilege were in the court records,” Romano said, “I felt sick.”

“These laws are a shield that allow us not to bend to the dysfunctions of the police and judicial systems,” she added. “If these protections are lacking, the legal defense system no longer works.”


Italy’s Anti-Mafia Directorate and the “Dirty Campaign” to Criminalize Migration

For decades, anti-mafia prosecutors relied on sprawling surveillance and long-term wiretaps to build cases against organized crime families operating in Italy. As the number of these large-scale Mafia investigations waned, prosecutors looked to what they saw as a new kind of mafia: Libyan smuggling rings facilitating migration. In 2013, they developed an interpretation of Italy’s anti-smuggling laws that allowed them to expand their jurisdiction into international waters and aggressively prosecute the people who pilot migrant boats.

These prosecutions relied not only on photos from rescues, but also witness statements obtained before migrants had access to lawyers or NGO staff. As humanitarian organizations began taking on a larger share of rescues at sea, the prosecutions stalled. In closed-door meetings, anti-mafia prosecutors explored ways to get the organizations out of the way: by charging them with smuggling, forcing them to bring police onboard their ships, or both.

The undercover police officer boarded the VOS Hestia in Malta in May 2017. He was presented to the crew as a firefighter employed by IMI Security, using the fake name Luca Bracco. Observing Bracco from the bridge, Vito Romano, the first officer on the VOS Hestia, was puzzled by his behavior.

“I asked him about his work as a fireman and he just went blank,” Romano remembered. “Then, when he thought people weren’t looking, he pulled out a little camera and took plenty of pictures.”

Bracco delivered this evidence to his superiors in the national police later that month in the town of Corigliano Calabro, where the coast guard directed the VOS Hestia to disembark hundreds of people who had just been rescued. Police arrested three alleged boat drivers as a result, but Bracco wasn’t able to show any collusion between smugglers and the NGOs. He did, however, photograph the Libyan coast guard — funded by Italy and the EU — escorting migrant boats into international waters and then recovering engines and fuel to bring back to land.

“I asked him about his work as a fireman and he just went blank.”

Meanwhile, Gallo continued passing information to Salvini. He also sent a second report to the intelligence service detailing contacts between the VOS Hestia crew and engine fishers at sea. Most of the evidence collected by both Gallo and Bracco related to these interactions, and the relationship between humanitarian rescue crews and engine fishers is at the center of accusations in the case.

Gallo maintained that he didn’t know a police officer was on board, but Romano remembers Gallo being rude and dismissive toward Bracco. “Gallo isolated him on board,” the first officer said. “He really didn’t like him. We didn’t understand … but then we found out that Gallo was a mole, and Bracco was also a mole.” According to court documents, Romano was also wiretapped for more than six months but never charged with any crime.

It wasn’t until April 2021 that the Italian media outlets RAI and Domani, along with The Guardian, revealed that prosecutors had wiretapped lawyers and journalists as part of this investigation. The news prompted international condemnation from human rights and press freedom organizations. Italian press organizations said the transcripts of wiretapped calls could be used to target sources, intimidate journalists, and open both up to potential violence. In response, Italian Justice Minister Marta Cartabia ordered a review of the Trapani prosecutor’s office. According to a ministry spokesperson, the results will not be made public, but last July, Cartabia told Parliament that the review had found “no violations of procedural regulations on the subject of wiretapping.”

Reached by The Intercept, the Trapani prosecutor’s office pointed to Cartabia’s statement, declining to comment further on an ongoing court case. The Interior Ministry did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment, and a spokesperson for the national police said they were not authorized to comment on the case.

A spokesperson for RCS Lab said the company offers its services to police “in full compliance with current regulations, with great ethics and professionalism.”

Migrants and refugees are transferred to the Vos Hestia rescue ship run by Save the Children on Nov. 4, 2016.

Migrants and refugees are transferred to the VOS Hestia rescue ship run by Save the Children on Nov. 4, 2016.

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images

Under Pressure

Spinelli says he first suspected a criminal investigation after the Easter mayday. His organization had already parted ways with the Iuventa when he received a call from the Italian coast guard, inviting him to the rescue center in Rome. “They invited me in a strange way, saying, ‘We have to discuss something, but it’s better to talk in person,’” Spinelli said. Then he knew something was up. “There I received a proper questioning for five or six hours.”

Spinelli told his version of events from his house in the hills outside Pisa. Tall and lanky, with curly hair, glasses, and a pointed stare, he said he remembered the coast guard interview like it was yesterday. The interviewer probed him for information about a connection between the Iuventa crew and Libyan smugglers.

It became clear, Spinelli said, that “we are looking at an operation similar to an anti-Mafia operation in terms of magnitude,” involving the national police; the Guardia di Finanza, which specializes in financial crimes; and anti-mafia prosecutors in Sicily. “These were not separate actions from provincial actors,” he said. “This was planned and directed from a central level.”

“I was scared. Every one of us was scared of the prospect of being charged,” Spinelli said. “I felt the treason of my country. It completely changed my view of the Italian judicial system.”

Documents in the case file show that the investigations into NGOs were indeed orchestrated from a central level, at the Interior Ministry. In December 2016, not long after prosecutors in Trapani opened their investigation, a new interior minister, Marco Minniti, was appointed. Up to that point, Minniti had overseen Italy’s intelligence service, and according to close colleagues, he was obsessed with migration and the role of rescue NGOs.

“I felt the treason of my country. It completely changed my view of the Italian judicial system.”

On the day Minniti was sworn in, the head of his ministry’s immigration office sent a 27-page report to the special operations division of the national police. The report made a number of claims about humanitarian organizations in the Central Mediterranean that soon became mainstream in Italy: that saving lives at sea contributed to increased migration; that NGOs let traffickers recover dinghies after rescues; and that crews “indoctrinated” migrants into not cooperating with law enforcement.

The report concluded that “NGO ships have become a sort of ‘platform’ waiting on the limit of territorial water for rubber boats coming from Libya.” Police forwarded copies to the prosecutor’s office in Trapani and the central office of the anti-mafia directorate, which, according to a note attached to the report, then issued a directive to its local branches to investigate.

In July 2017, Minniti presented his solution to the NGO problem at a summit of EU interior ministers in Estonia. It was a code of conduct, an 11-point document that, among other things, required humanitarian organizations to bring police officers aboard their vessels and “transmit all information of investigative interest” to Italian authorities.

The code of conduct generated intense debate. Some organizations chose to sign the document, while others sought to negotiate their own versions. A handful of organizations refused to sign flat-out, arguing that the requirements would interfere with rescue work and lead to more fatalities at sea. In an interview with CNN, Òscar Camps, the founder of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, said he thought Italian authorities were bullying them into signing the code.

The transcripts of wiretapped phone calls support Camps’s claim. At a meeting with MSF, according to a wiretapped call made by one of the people present, an Interior Ministry representative said that if the organization signed the code, prosecutors would take that into consideration regarding potential criminal investigations. The caller, an MSF employee, described this as a “veiled threat” from the ministry. Still, MSF did not sign.

Minniti denied any personal involvement in pressuring NGOs, saying that his head of cabinet was in charge of relationships with the organizations. He argued that there was a consensus in Italy that humanitarian organizations should be regulated. “The minister of interior refused to intervene with a law. He just adopted a code of conduct,” Minniti said, speaking about himself in the third person from the Rome offices of Leonardo, the Italian defense company where he now works. “From the far right to the far left, everyone unanimously asked the government to intervene on the handling of migrants.”

On August 1, 2017, Jugend Rettet announced that after three days of negotiations with the Italian government, the organization had decided to not sign the code of conduct. They said that the document was “in direct conflict with the humanitarian principles on which our work is based” and would force them to break international maritime law.

“We don’t want to break off talks,” the organization stated. “Only together can solutions be found.”

“When they seized the Iuventa, I said, I have to get off this ship. Otherwise they’ll throw me overboard.”

The following day, police impounded the Iuventa and leaked to the press a 148-page document mostly made up of wiretapped conversations by Gallo and Spinelli. “They are looking for conflict,” Spinelli was recorded saying, complaining to colleagues about the attitude of the Iuventa crew toward Italy’s coast guard rescue center. He called the crew’s lack of respect for the authority of the state “unacceptable.”

Spinelli said these private conversations were taken out of context to serve prosecutors’ interests. He was floored when he found out about the seizure, the wiretaps, and that the contents of his phone calls had been sent to journalists throughout Italy. “I was in my room and turned on the television,” Spinelli recalled. “On one channel, they were speaking about me. On another, they were speaking about me. On the third, they were speaking about me.”

Gallo was still aboard the VOS Hestia when the news broke. He was indignant that no one had told him what was coming. All his colleagues now knew that he had been informing on them.

“When they seized the Iuventa, I said, I have to get off this ship,” Gallo remembered. “Otherwise they’ll throw me overboard.”

Months later, police searched Gallo’s house and seized his electronic devices. Speaking to us outside the hotel in Rome, Gallo looked more incredulous than angry. He couldn’t believe that after all the information he had passed to authorities, after being wiretapped despite his willingness to collaborate, police would forcibly enter his house.

“I said, ‘Is this a joke? I was passing you information up until yesterday,’” Gallo recalled. “Everything you’ve built, you’ve built thanks to us.”

Representatives of the German relief organisation 'Jugend Rettet' (lit. youth rescues) speaks during a press conference in Trapani, Italy, 19 September 2017. After a court hearing the representatives take position on the allegations of having worked together with traffickers in the Mediterranean Sea. Lawyer Leonardo Marino can be seen on the right. Photo: Lena Klimkeit/dpa (Photo by Lena Klimkeit/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Representatives of Jugend Rettet speak during a press conference in Trapani, Italy, on Sept. 19, 2017.

Photo: Lena Klimkeit/picture alliance via Getty Images

“A Few Idiots”

The Iuventa was pulling into port in Lampedusa, a small island off the coast of Sicily, when its crew received a message from the coast guard that the ship was being seized due to a criminal investigation.

The news made headlines worldwide, and the Italian press feasted on the leaked wiretap transcripts. Newspapers quoted prosecutors’ claims that people rescued by the Iuventa weren’t actually at risk of drowning. They said that the crew had “arranged deliveries” of migrants with smugglers. Authorities confiscated mobile phones, laptops, and hard drives from the ship, according to court documents. Data police extracted from these devices included the text of internal chats and emails, photos and videos of rescues, and the browsing history of the crew.

In an email described in the case file as offering insight into “the attempts by some NGOs to establish contacts with Libyan traffickers,” Kathrin Schmidt — Jugend Rettet’s former head of mission, who is currently charged with smuggling — received a message from the crew member of another NGO, with a proposal to distribute flyers explaining the NGOs’ work to engine fishers during rescues. The idea, according to the email, was that the information would get back to coastal communities in Libya and eventually to the traffickers themselves. But the proposed flyers were related to migrant safety, not collusion: requests that they not put so many people on the boats, that they provide flashlights, and that they cease pushing boats to sea in bad weather.

Prosecutors paid special attention to photos of outboard motors lined up in port, scraped from laptops that were taken in the seizure. They hypothesized that the Iuventa assisted Libyan fishermen in recovering motors from migrant boats to sell back on land. Another photo included in the file shows a sticker inside a toilet aboard the Iuventa that reads “With Best Regards to the MRCC,” referring to the coast guard rescue center. In the seizure order, prosecutors noted that these and other actions by the Iuventa crew represented “antagonistic” attitudes and “a desire to break Italian law.”

The court announced charges in March 2021, four and half years after Gallo and Ballestra first spoke to the police in Trapani. Twenty-one people were charged in total. The trial began last May but has been repeatedly delayed for procedural reasons. The next hearing will be on January 13.

Italy’s newly elected far-right government, led by Giorgia Meloni, has taken an active interest in the trial. On December 19, the office of the prime minister requested to join the litigation as a civil party, meaning that the government is now directly seeking financial damages from the defendants. Salvini, who succeeded Minniti as interior minister and is now Meloni’s main coalition partner, was recently appointed transportation minister, putting him in charge of Italian ports and the coast guard.

The Iuventa crew declined to speak about the specifics of the case. Their lawyers maintain that the charges are unfounded and say they will contest the legality of the sweeping surveillance operation. “The crew has never communicated or cooperated with either Libyan smuggling networks or militias,” said Francesca Cancellaro, one of the lawyers for the Iuventa.

Lawyers for MSF and Save the Children declined to discuss the specifics of the case. Vroon, the company that owned the ships they leased, said, “We deeply regret that our crew and the company is being exposed to criminal charges whilst performing their human duty to people in distress.”

Since the Iuventa case began, Italian prosecutors have carried out over a dozen other legal proceedings against humanitarian rescue organizations working in the Central Mediterranean. Three cases have been dismissed, and the rest are ongoing.

All the while, tens of thousands of people continue to flee Libya each year. In the past five years, the EU has drastically reduced sea rescue patrols and is providing surveillance support to the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrant boats and bring them back to the country they just fled. Over 30,000 people were intercepted at sea and returned to Libya in 2021. Just under 70,000 people made it to Europe via this route. At least 1,500 people drowned trying.

Pietro Gallo said he doesn’t regret what he started, but things didn’t turn out as he’d hoped. “The goal wasn’t to have the crews of Iuventa and [MSF] arrested. We just wanted to show what was going on in the Mediterranean,” Gallo told us. “Our aim was not to campaign for Salvini, it was only to find a solution to this problem.”

He still believes rescue NGOs should be more transparent about their funding. “Behind all these poor people, there’s a lot of money going around.”

In a wiretap from August 2017, Gallo seemed more interested in what was in it for him. Authorities had been listening to his calls for months to see if he was telling the truth, he told his brother. Now they had to admit him back into the police. “I’ve been good, haven’t I?”

“Well, you stopped all the migrants,” his brother replied. “Now they don’t come anymore.”

“The European Union didn’t manage, the Italian government didn’t manage,” Gallo answered, “then a few idiots came and stopped everything.”

Additional research: Alessio Perrone

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