Italy: Judicial harassment of 10 Search and Rescue volunteers

Urgent Appeal

ITL 001 / 0519 / OBS 041
Seizure /
Judicial harassment /
May 13, 2019

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH, requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in Italy.

Description of the situation:

The Observatory has been informed by reliable sources about the ongoing judicial harassment against ten volunteers [1] who were working for the German search and rescue (SAR) NGO Jugend Rettet e.V.. The ten human rights defenders, of German, Portuguese, Spanish and British nationalities, were engaged in SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea on the vessel flying the Dutch flag Iuventa, which rescued more than 14,000 migrants between July 2016 and August 2017.

According to the information received, on March 19, 2019, the Court of Trapani postponed a hearing to review the decision by the Trapani Prosecutor concerning the confiscation of electronic devices belonging to the Iuventa’s volunteers to May 21, 2019.

The Observatory recalls that the Iuventa rescue vessel has been impounded in the port of Trapani, Italy, for almost two years, preventing it from pursuing SAR activities and that the ten volunteers operating the Iuventa vessel face charges of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration” (see background information).

Moreover, according to the same information, confidential information on the ongoing investigations, as well as the full names of the ten defenders, were leaked by the Italian authorities to the national press, leading to a media smear campaign against the ten human rights defenders as well as online and off-line threats by right wing extremists. The 10 defenders have not yet had access to the investigation file.

The Observatory expresses its utmost concerns about the increasing harassment and criminalisation against human rights defenders working on migration issues in Europe [2]. As to April 2019, at least 24 search and rescue workers were being officially investigated by the Italian authorities under charges of “aiding illegal immigration”. The trend of criminalising migrant rights defenders has also been documented in other European Union countries such as France and Greece. The Observatory further recalls that migrants’ rescue at sea is an obligation under international maritime law, as enshrined under Article 98 of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea and by customary law, and deplores that in the current context, vessels have virtually stopped conducting SAR operations in the Mediterranean.

The Observatory calls on the Italian authorities to immediately put an end to the impoundment of the Iuventa ship, to drop all charges against the 10 migrants’ rights defenders and to ensure that all human rights defenders are allowed to carry out their legitimate human rights activities in particular with regard to SAR operations in the Mediterranean Sea.

Background information:

In June 2017, the Prosecutor of Trapani opened an investigation against ten volunteers operating the Iuventa vessel [3] and on August 2, 2017, the Iuventa vessel was seized as a pre-emptive measure upon charges of possession of fire-arms, collusion with organised crime, and aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Personal electronic devices belonging to the volunteers of the rescue team on the vessel were also confiscated at the same time. The charges were triggered by an investigation conducted by a private security company, which later appeared to be linked with one of the spokespersons of the far-right, white nationalist “Identitarian Movement”.

The vessel was then searched for fire-arms in August 2017 and August 2018, upon request of the Prosecutor of Trapani. However, no weapon was found on board.

In June 2018, the Prosecutor of Trapani issued an official notification to the Iuventa crew volunteers, informing them of the opening of an investigation on charges of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration” (Article 12 of Legislative Decree No. 286 of 1998). The other two charges of “possession of fire-arms” and “collusion with organised crime” were dropped. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in jail, with a minimum of five years, and a fine of 15,000 EUR for each migrant rescued and disembarked in Italy.

Two appeals against the impoundment order were rejected by the Court of Trapani. A third appeal was also rejected by the court of cassation under the argument that the owners of the Jugend Rettet did not provide evidence that they had taken sufficient measures to prevent the ship from being used for criminal activities.

Actions requested:

Please write to the Italian and European Union authorities asking them to:

i. End all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against volunteers of the German NGO Jugend Rettet e.V. and all human rights defenders in Italy, including those engaged in SAR activities;

ii. Ensure in all circumstances that human rights defenders and NGOs are able to carry out their legitimate activities, including in particular SAR activities in the Mediterranean Sea, without any hindrance and fear of reprisals;

iii. In line with international human rights standards, broaden the scope of the exemption provided under Article 12 of Italian Legislative Decree No. 286 of 1998, as currently drafted is limited to SAR activities concerning migrants “already present on the territory of the State”;

iv. Amend Article 1(2) of Council of the European Union (EU) Directive 2002/90/EC “defining the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence” to ensure that EU Member States do not impose sanctions in cases where the aim of the behaviour is to provide humanitarian assistance to the person concerned and ensure that the human rights of migrants are respected [4];

v. Conform to the provisions of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1998, especially its Articles 1 and 12.2;

vi. Ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and international instruments ratified by Italy and the EU.

Addresses in Italy:

Mr. Giuseppe Conte, Prime Minister. E-mail:
Mr. Luigi Di Maio, Deputy Prime Minister. E-mail:
Mr. Matteo Salvini, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Interior. E-mail:;
Mr. Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. E-mail:
Mr. Alfonso Bonafede, Minister for Justice. E-mail:
H.E. Elena Basila, Ambassador of Italy in Belgium. E-mail:
H.E. Gian Lorenzo Cornado, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Italy to the United Nations. E-mail:

Please also write to the diplomatic representations of Italy in your respective countries.

Addresses in the European Union:

Mr. Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President and European Commissioner for Better Regulation, Inter-institutional Relations, Rule of Law and Charter of Fundamental Rights E-mail:
Mr. Dimitros Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration, Internal Affairs and Citizenship. E-mail:
Mr. Claude Moraes, President of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament. E-mail:

Please also write to the diplomatic representations of the European Union in your respective countries.

Geneva-Paris, May 13, 2019

Kindly inform us of any action undertaken quoting the code of this appeal in your reply.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH. The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.
To contact the Observatory, call the emergency line:

Tel and fax OMCT +41 (0) 22 809 49 39 / +41 22 809 49 29
Tel and fax FIDH +33 (0) 1 43 55 25 18 / +33 1 43 55 18 80

[1] The names are not published for security reasons.
[2] See for instance, the Observatory urgent appeals ITA 001 / 0418 / OBS 048, published on April 16, 2018, ITL 001 / 1018 / OBS 125, published on October 16, 2018 and FRA 001 / 0518 / OBS 077.2, published on December 21, 2018.
[3] Charges were opened against three captains (Pia, Dariush and Uli), two heads of mission (Kathrin and Sascha), and five rescue crew (Laura, Miguel, Zoe, Hendrik and Miguel).
[4] At the moment, the Directive allows State to decide whether or not exempt from the scope of the Directive “cases where the aim of the behaviour is to provide humanitarian assistance to the person concerned”.

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