29 August 2007

Lampedusa: fishermen arrested having saved 44 shipwrecked migrants

ROME, 29th August 2007 – On 8 August, seven Tunisian fishermen were arrested at Lampedusa and their boats seized, having saved the lives of 44 migrants from rough seas 30 miles south of Lampedusa. The seven, the two captains of two fishing boats from Monastir and their five men crew, have been charged with having helped illegal immigrant trafficking. The immigrants, that included 11 women and two children, had launched an SOS on a satellite phone before their inflatable dinghy sank. And the captains of the two Tunisian fishing boat (Mohamed el Hedi and Fakhreddine Morthada) informed the Maritime rescue coordination centre (Mrcc) asking for medical assistance for one of the two children aboard. The fishermen are suspected to be migrants traffickers because the Italian authorities did not find on their boats neither net neither fish.

Naciri Mohamed, Moroccan, is one of the migrants rescued by the fishing boats, together with Eritreans, Sudaneses and Ethiopians. They left Libya on Sunday 5th August, but after 48 hours, their zodiac reported a damage and start to deflate itself. After the refusal of several fishing boats, they were helped by the two Tunisian boats, which took them aboard. Their inflatable boat than sunk, under two meters high waves. On the two boats there were no nets, because they were fishing together with a third boat, called Karim Allah, on which there were all the tools needed for the “cianciolo” traditional fishing, where two boats make light at the bottom of the sea to attract fish while a third one catch them in the nets. A document seized on the Morthada, authorizes the boat to the “cianciolo” fishing with the mother boat “Karim Allah”.

Once they saved the migrants, the fishermen launched an alarm via radio. A fax was so sent the 8th August at 15:15 from the Maritime search and rescue coordination centre (Mrcc) of Tunis to that one of Rome and Malta. The message informs, in English, that two Tunisian fishing boats “have saved” 44 migrants and that one of them need medical assistance. The fax gave also the geographic coordinates of the boats: 34°58' north and 014°56' est. About thirty miles south of Lampedusa and approximately 90 off Monastir, from where the fishermen were departed. The Mrcc of Rome informed the Navy war vessel Vega, which reached the area sending an inflatable boat with a doctor aboard. It’s 18:25, the boats are 14 miles south of Lampedusa, 2 miles off the Italian territorial waters. At 18:50 the vessel left the fishing boats following a new calls of alarm. Meanwhile – as one of the Sudaneses passengers reported – the men aboard the Italian Coastguard motor patrol vessels asked them to follow them heading to north, towards Lampedusa, where they landed in a couple of hours. Once they arrived on the island, the seven sailors were arrested accused of trafficking in human beings. They now risk up to 15 years of detention. A sentence is waited in the next weeks, in the meanwhile they are detained in Agrigento prison.

If sentenced guilty, it will be the first time. Fishermen have already been denounced but always acquitted for the humanitarian reasons previewed in the article 12 of the Italian immigration law, according to which the humanitarian assistance to migrants without any residence permit in Italy do not constitute a crime. Moreover, Italian authorities did not have the right to ask the Tunisian fishermen to bring the migrants back in Tunisia. Many of them are asylum seekers, and the article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, forbids deportation of those people who risk to be detained in inhuman and degrading treatments once deported. Collective deportation are also prohibited by the Treaty of Nice of 2000.

Last but not least, the maritime laws, based on the Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (Sar) of 1979, establishes the obligation to save lives in the sea, regardless to their nationality or status, and the duty to disembark them in a “safe place”, which the 8th August was the port of Lampedusa.