07 June 2011

Kidnapped by the State in Lampedusa

Two hundred Tunisians are being held hostage by the State for over a month now. There are two lawyers who are trying to defend them but they come up against the obstructionism of the Ministry of the Interior with the result that the right to legal defence is being denied to a former prisoner of Ben Ali’s regime. All this is happening whilst the charter flights have restarted the collective repatriations from Lampedusa to Tunisi, and to avoid this in Pantelleria there are those who cut their own veins in protest. But let’s start from the beginning. From last Saturday, 4th June 2011. It’s nine o’clock in the morning, and the lawyers Leonardo Marino and Giacomo La Russa present themselves punctually in front of the gates of Lampedusa’s detention centre, in Contrada Imbriacola.

They came from Agrigento to meet their clients: 16 Tunisian citizens withheld on the island since the beginning of May, who following the procedure nominated them as their defence lawyers. A police officer waits for them at the entrance of the detention centre. It’s immediately clear that something is wrong.

He says that without the prefecture’s authorization nobody can enter. The person in charge of the centre, Cono Galipò, who turns up in the meantime, confirms the restriction. Very strange, considering that the right to a lawyer is guaranteed to all detainees in all the centres of expulsion and identification of Italy, and that every lawyer can freely meet his/her clients in the Cie, with no need of any prefectural authorization. The two solicitors, who are aware of this, show the acts of appointment signed by (and duly authenticated by an officer of the municipality of Lampedusa) their 16 clients. But in the end there’s nothing that can be done, and the two lawyers decide to place the issue directly before the Prefecture of Agrigento, as the reception centre of Lampedusa falls under its responsibility.

The vice-prefect, Elisa Vaccaro, answers the phone call. The two solicitors remind her the principle of inviolability of the right of defence and they explain that their request is not to visit the centre, but rather to meet their clients, incidentally in the rooms put at their disposal by the IOM (International Organization for Migration) outside the detention area.

But still no chance. The vice-prefect Vaccaro refers to the famous circular letter 1305 of the 1st April 2011, that forbids the entry in the reception and detention centres to anyone who doesn’t have an agreement with the prefectures and invites the lawyers to forward a formal request even to the Ministry of Interior.

With no other choice, at 11:33am Marino and La Russa send a fax entitled Request for a meeting with defence lawyers c/o reception centre of Lampedusa, addressed to the Cabinet Office of the Prefecture of Agrigento, to the Department of civil liberties and immigration of the Ministry of Interior and copy to IOM in Rome, indicating the extreme urgency of the request.

At 7:15pm, after waiting ten hours, the authorization of the Prefecture of Agrigento finally arrives allowing the two solicitors to talk to their clients, but not to all. Yes, because the Viminal (Italian Ministry of Interior) decided that the lawyers would be able to meet only those Tunisian citizens who provided the same personal details at the moment of disembarkation and when they signed the proxy to nominate their own lawyer.

Seven clients of the lawyers are thus deprived of their right to a lawyer, as they provided personal details at the moment of identification, which were not confirmed at the moment the lawyers were nominated.

Amongst these the most sensitive case belongs to a Tunisian from Gafsa, who has been detained for more than 20 days and has asked for political asylum to the Italian government. In Tunisia he risks going back to jail, for a sentence inflicted upon him in Ben Ali’s times for the revolutionary movements of Redeyef in 2008, when the regime wiped out the political movement of the mining area, arresting hundreds of people for common crimes, such as vandalism, setting fire and criminal conspiracy.

The person involved in this case had provided a false identity at the moment of arrival in Lampedusa, still under shock for the tortures he underwent in prison before the fall of the regime, and terrified just at the idea that the Tunisian consular authorities could identify him and send him back to his torturers.

His wife, a French citizen, waits for him in Paris, where she has mobilized lawyers of international reputation for his case. But Italy has taken a decision. Once again, with a logic which is more typical of a police State rather than a State subject to the rule of law: whoever declared two different names, whatever the reason for doing this, has no right to have a lawyer. He has no longer the right to defend himself.

A reasoning that would cause goose bumps in other countries even to someone ignorant of the law. And likewise, it would cause shivers to know that a European State in 2011 turns into hostages 200 citizens of a neighbouring country, Tunisia, depriving them of their personal freedom beyond any legal guarantee. Locked up in a facility juridically committed to reception and transformed for the occasion into a jail.

This story has been going on for a month now, actually for a month and six days. Since the last arrivals on the 2nd May. Since then, holding the Tunisian on the island hasn’t been validated by any judge, as expected by Italian law every time an Italian or foreign citizen is deprived of his/her freedom to be kept in prison or in a deportation centre.

In these cases the Criminal Procedure Code is straightforward. The article concerned is n.605: kidnapping. Whoever deprives someone of his/her own liberty is punishable by a reclusion lasting from six months up to eight years. Why doesn’t the Public Prosecutor’s office in Agrigento open a file on Lampedusa? They could even do it before the lawyers present a criminal statement regarding the damage caused to their clients.

Yes, because anyhow in the end, despite the obstructionism of the Ministry of Interior, they managed to meet some of their clients all the same. Only five, better than nothing. And someone now will have to explain why they’re being illegally detained.

The other four detainees who had assigned them for their defence, are no longer on the island. Two of them were transferred by helicopter to the hospital in Catania, on 30th May, following an attempted suicide, and the other two were repatriated on flights that left from Palermo on 27th May and on 2nd June. Yes, because in the meantime time collective deportations have started again.

Only one hundred Tunisians are left on the island. The third flight in a week, left yesterday from Lampedusa. There were 26 passengers on board. All Tunisians. Identified by the consul at the airport of Palermo and guarded by the Italian police in Tunis. Until now we know little about the repatriations. But some rumours have begun to circulate. On one side they say that the expelled weren’t provided with any written copy of the measures of repatriation, against which it’s impossible to make an appeal. On the other hand they speak of violence used by the Italian security forces in order to carry out the repatriations.

Repatriations against which the detainees keep protesting, unfortunately once again through self-mutilation. In the last days, about thirty young men had swallowed razor blades, glass and iron objects so that they could be urgently hospitalised and avoid repatriation. Yesterday it was Pantelleria’s turn, where some of the sixty Tunisian detainees locked up in the barrack Barone, cut their chest and arms with broken glass to protest against their detention on the island that has been going on since 27th May. They ask to be transferred to Trapani as soon as possible.

Thanks to Germana Graceffo, of the association Borderline Sicilia, for the information contained in her report from Lampedusa on the 6th June 2011.

Translated by Alexandra D'Onofrio