Iuventa: "We risk 20 years in prison, but they won't end solidarity!"

On 21 May 2022, four crew members of the civilian search and rescue vessel Iuventa travelled to the court in Trapani, Sicily, for the first day of the preliminary hearing. At this pre-trial hearing, the court decides whether they will be charged with "aiding and abetting irregular immigration" of refugees to Italy. The four defendants of the Iuventa crew contributed to the rescue of more than 14,000 people who had made their way to Europe from Libya. If convicted, they each face up to 20 years in prison.

A total of 21 people, which include Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children and Iuventa, as well as a shipping company, have been charged. What is being dealt with in the court in Trapani is not only individual sea rescue operations and their backgrounds, but also and above all the ever-increasing criminalisation of solidarity and the exercise of human rights, Italy's role in restricting civil society and the potentially devastating effects of the case for people on the run. After Italy suspended the Mare Nostrum sea rescue mission in the Mediterranean in 2014, it was civil society organisations that filled the void left at sea to save the lives of refugees and migrants in distress on the central Mediterranean route - the deadliest migration route in the world.

The Iuventa was seized by Italian authorities in 2017 and has since been detained in the port of Trapani. A wide-ranging investigation has been launched. Despite the fact that tens of thousands have drowned on this deadly route to Europe, prosecutors are again arguing that the rescues were not made out of distress at sea, but that the crew cooperated with smugglers. This tendency not only limits the civil space for the defence of human rights, but also has far-reaching consequences for the work of civil society organisations in general. Search and rescue organisations are repeatedly targeted by a systematic campaign of repression and criminalisation. In addition, improper investigative practices - such as illegal wiretapping of journalists and lawyers - are a cause for concern. To ensure that the process is fair and transparent, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Amnesty International, Giuristi Democratici, Democratic Lawyers of Switzerland and the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy & World Human Rights have requested to participate in the hearings.

A press conference was organised by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Amnesty International, borderline-europe, European Association of Lawyers for Democracy & World Human Rights, Giuristi Democratici and Democratic Lawyers of Switzerland on 17 May. The video of the press conference is available here.

On the eve of the first day of the trial, Arci Porco Rosso and activists in Palermo invited people to an anti-fascist gathering in solidarity with the crew of the Iuventa.
The meeting on 20 May was an opportunity to talk about the struggle against solidarity that many governments are waging against activists.

On 21 May, on the other hand, we stood in front of the Trapani court to express our full solidarity with the friends of the crew of the ship "Iuventa" and those of the other rescue ships that are currently on trial.
We gathered on the street that connects the court and the port. In the background you can see the Iuventa, which has now been stuck there since August 2017 and is no longer seaworthy.

Defend human rights and freedom of movement!
Stop the criminalisation of migration!
Freedom for the Iuventa!


19.04.2024: The proceedings have been closed! There will be no main trial and all charges have been dropped.

On Friday, 19 April 2024, the charges against the crew members of the sea rescue ship Iuventa and members of Doctors Without Borders & Save the Children were finally dropped at the court in Trapani and the confiscated rescue ship was released. Two rescue missions by the Iuventa (2016 and 2017) were interpreted as ‘smuggling’ by the Italian public prosecutor's office, whereupon the defendants were accused of ‘aiding and abetting irregular immigration’ and faced prison sentences of up to 20 years. Further information on the background to the charges and a detailed account of the investigations and court hearings can be found on our website.

After seven years, the court has announced that it will not go to trial because ‘no criminal offence has been committed’ and the main witnesses for the prosecution are not credible. The rescue ship Iuventa, which was confiscated in 2017, is now a wreck. It lies in the harbour of Trapani and has not been maintained in the seven years of investigations and trials. Although the judge has now ordered it to be restored to its original condition, the crew of the Iuventa have little hope that this will actually happen. The trial against the Iuventa crew is the largest trial to date in the criminalisation of sea rescue and is a politically motivated trial through and through, which should act as a deterrent. Within the European policy of isolation, Italy's increasingly harsh measures against sea rescuers and refugees are largely accepted without criticism. In 2023, sea rescue ships were blocked in Italy for a total of 430 days while people died in the Mediterranean. The trial has also become a political struggle against the dehumanising European border regime on the part of civilian sea rescuers and activists. ‘The trial should become a political stage, a means of struggle to raise awareness of how migration is systematically criminalised and how people on the move are targeted.’  (Kathrin Schmidt, Iuventa-Crew)

Although there is a sense of relief among the defendants after the last trial, it is clear that this battle is not yet over: Tommaso Fabbri (Doctors Without Borders), for example, commented on the extreme cost of the trial (3 million euros) and the time lost: ‘Can you imagine how many things could have been done with all this money to save lives? [...] The real victims are not us, but all the people who died and are still dying at sea.’

The decision in the trial against the Iuventa crew was nevertheless an important success for refugees and civil sea rescue, as it made one thing very clear: that rescuing people is ‘not a criminal offence, but a right, even a duty’, according to lawyer Nicola Canestrini after the last day in court. According to ECCHR, the decision also affects ‘all civil sea rescue’ and is an ‘important pillar of solidarity with people in flight’.

The Iuventa case has received a relatively large amount of media attention in recent years, but refugees who are arrested on arrival as ‘smugglers’ and often have to serve years in prison unfortunately still receive very little attention. There seems to be very little media and political interest here. Kathrin Schmidt emphasised this again in an interview after the trial on 19 April: ‘The aim of all criminalisation and repression in connection with the border regime, border violence and everything that hinders rescue at sea is ultimately directed against people in flight. They are the ones Europe wants to stop. They are the ones Europe kills every day. It is these people who have to be talked about. It is these people who need to be listened to [...]’

28.02.2024: According to the press release from the IUVENTA crew, after seven years, the prosecution prosecution calls for charges to be dropped in IUVENTA trial. This decision was based on the lack of credibility of the main witnesses and the absence of any basis for wrongdoing on the defendant`s site. The full press release can be found here.

11.02.2024: Iuventa trial crumbels: main prosecution witnesses completely discredited

The fact that the Italian criminal prosecution authorities have launched a huge trial, wich has persisted for nearly 7 years, involving the confiscation of a ship that has since deteriorated, all based solely on the testimony of two disgraced former police officers, is a huge scandal – and reveals a system. More information can be found here.

15.12.2023: Judge requests key wittnesses and more evidences

After the Iuventa-Process was presented by the Public Prosecutor’s Office as a huge case against the private sea rescue operators in the Mediterranean, the responsible judge in Trapani requested more evidence and wittnesses in order to be able to decide whether the case should be dropped or dragged on for years. "As much as we hope for an end to the trial and as tired as we are of any delay in the only possible decision – a full acquittal – we welcome the fact that what should have happened years ago is finally happening: the hearing of relevant witnesses and the confrontation of their statements with the reality of the evidence!" This was mentioned in a statement by the Iuventa-Crew. The next trial days haven been set for january.

23.11.2023: Twelve NGOs filed a complain in Italy and requested an investigation: Who is responsible for the destruction of the rescue ship Iuventa? 

Several civil organisations have followed the Iuventa crew and filed a joint complaint. They are demanding that those responsible for the destruction of the Iuventa since its seizure in August 2017 are identified. The NGOs respectively filed a complaint on the same subject in order to prevent the relevant prosecutor's office of Trapani from ignoring the case. In october 2022 during an inspection by the shipping group the catastrophic condition of the vessel was discovered. The neglected maintenance by the Italian authorities and the lack of safeguarding led to a state of plunder and destruction by unknown people. The results of the inspection were confirmed in december 2022 by the court in Trapani. By doing so the breach of the duty of custody was thus de facto recognised, but without anyone being held responsible. Together the NGOs now want this to be followed up upon. The common action is a sign of strong inter-organizational solidarity. Among the participating organizations were besides us Sea Watch, SOS Humanity, Mediterranea, Louise Michel, United4Rescue, Mission Lifeline, Mare-GO, Sea Punks, Alarm Phone, R42-sailtraining UG and ResQ.

13.10.2023: After seven years of investigation and preliminary proceedings, the defendants of the IUVENTA crew have their first opportunity to make statements in court. Following the court session, the IUVENTA crew members post parts of their statements on social media. Darius, one of the defendants of the IUVENTA crew, recounts what happened in 2017. He explains that after a mission, IUVENTA was forced to bring five of the over 100 rescued individuals to land in Lampedusa. During the three days it took the ship to travel to Lampedusa and back, there were 21 other boats in distress nearby. While stopped in Lampedusa, the ship was covertly bugged as part of the investigation. Upon returning to the search and rescue zone, five of the 21 boats were missing, and the people on board likely drowned: "I wish the prosecution had to listen to the cries of the thousand people from those five boats that disappeared, instead of our mundane conversations on the bridge." Sascha, another defendant of the IUVENTA crew, emphasized why the eyewitness reports used in the trial so far are inaccurate and which evidence should be considered. During the defendants' statements, two out of the three prosecutors leave the courtroom.

6.10.2023: The two experts are questioned by the defence lawyers regarding the process of listening, transcribing, and translating the wiretaps. During the discussion about the translation of the term 'boat driver,' one expert explains that there was indeed a misunderstanding, and the correct translation in Italian should be 'conducente' instead of 'scafista.' It was simply overlooked to make this change in the Italian transcript.

29.09.2023: The judge agrees to the request of the defense lawyers to hear two new witnesses. These are two experts who listened to, transcribed, and translated the intercepted conversations. The admission of these witnesses is important for the defense lawyers to clarify the content of the intercepted conversations. Since individual words can have multiple meanings, there may be ambiguities in translating the intercepted English conversations into Italian. The main point of contention was the translation of the English term 'boat driver' as 'scafista' in Italian. Unlike the neutral English term, the colloquial Italian term is associated with criminal activities. The question here was mainly why 'boat driver' was not translated with the more neutral Italian term 'conducente' (driver).

08.09.2023: The Hearing regarding the jurisdiction of the wiretaps as evidence continues. After the prosecution and the IUVENTA lawyers have expressed their views, the judge announces his decision: he rejects the objections of the defence. Thus, the material obtained through wiretaps can be used as evidence in the IUVENTA trial.

14.07.2023: Already in March the question arose in court, if the court in Trapani had jurisdiction over the process. The question arose because search and rescue missions were involved. The territorial jurisdiction is therefore not clear. Now the constitutional court judged: Five different Courts (Trapani, Castrovillari, Palermo, Ragusa, Vibo Valentia) are responsible for the process. The territorial jurisdiction depends on the port in which the ships entered after they finished their search and rescue mission. The proceeding should be divided accordingly.

Furthermore, the defense lawyers are requesting that certain pieces of evidence from the wiretapping of the MSF ship "Vos Prudence" be declared inadmissible. The defense lawyers argue that there were serious errors in the authorization of the wiretapping by the judge during the investigation proceedings and in the manner in which the prosecution conducted the wiretapping.

24.06.2023: The court rejected the applications filed by the lawyers of the Iuventa Crew. Through the motions, the lawyers wanted to ask the Constitutional Court to review the Italian norms in question for their legality. The next hearing is scheduled for 14 July 2023 in Trapani.

12.05.2023: The lawyers of the Iuventa crew have filed a motion that could radically change the course of the trial. Lawyers Francesca Cancellaro, Alessandro Gamberini and Nicola Canestrini are asking the judge in Trapani to have the constitutional legitimacy of Article 12 of the Migration Law reviewed before the Constitutional Court. The ambiguous and complex wording of Article 12 is the reason for many accusations made over the years against activists - from NGO ship crews to Baobab members or helpers of transit passengers in Ventimiglia and Trieste - and migrants. At the same time, they are pushing for a provisional referral to the Court of Justice of the European Union regarding the "Facilitators Package", i.e. the set of EU rules that regulates the same issue at the EU level.

15.03.2023: While the court confirmed Italy’s jurisdiction over sea rescue operations conducted in international waters, it is currently still not completely clear whether the prosecution in Trapani even has the competence over the whole case. However, the court abstained from ruling and instead decided to refer the matter to Italy’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, for clarification. Although this fundamental question remains open until the decision of the highest court, the trial in Trapani will continue on March 24.

01.03.2023: During the preliminary hearing of this day, the iuventa defendans intervened in commemoration of the victims of the tragic shipwreck in Crotone. Afterwards, the prosecution sought to defend Italian jurisdiction and its territorial competence. The judge’s decision on the exceptions raised by the defence is scheduled on 15 March 2023.

25.02.2023: There was a preliminary trial where the court rejected the request of the Prime Minister’s Office to participate in the trial; on the contrary, the Ministry of Interior was formally admitted as a third party, but still without addressing the substance of its claims.

12.02.2023: The iuventa crew filed a criminal complaint to the Trapani Prosecutor’s Office for the abandonment and consequent contribution to destruction of the iuventa rescue ship.

10.02.23: Trapani, February 10, 2023: In a ten-hour trial at the Court of Trapani, the objection of the IUVENTA lawyers for insufficient interpretation during the interrogations was finally rejected by the judge. Although it was acknowledged that many mistakes were made, these were considered only as "irregularities" and would not interfere with the general fainess of the trial. Through this decision, the judge also opposed the opinion of the court-appointed experts, who declared the interpreters provided by the court to be unsuitable. The application of the Ministry of Interior and the Prime Minister's Office were also discussed, but since they contained serious errors, they were declared inadmissible. A government representative had to apologize for these errors in court. The judge's final decision on the government's participation will be announced at the next hearing on February 25, 2023.

19.12.22: Following a request by Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the Italian state now wants to be admitted as a civil plaintiff in the trial against Iuventa. This demonstrates the political motivation of the trial, which remains at the preliminary hearing stage.

03.12.22: International observers were admitted to the trial against iuventa and were allowed to participate in the proceedings for the first time, which, according to the defense attorney, can be helpful for a fairer trial. There is still no further progress in the trial due to procedural errors and the failure of the prosecution to guarantee a fair trial according to the standards.

12.11.22: Trapani, November 12, 2022. In the largest court case against crew members of civilian sea rescue, since five years there is not only no sufficient evidence to justify the seizure of a rescue ship, let alone the threat of 20 years prison sentences. This criminal proceeding also lacks the basic principles of a fair trial.

31.10.22: 5 Years after the seizure of the iuventa ship, the trial was adjourned for the second time last Saturday, 29 October 2022, again due to mistakes by the prosecution. A subsequent voluntary questioning by the police of one of the iuventa defendants had to be aborted after minutes due to insufficient interpretation. The iuventa defendants asked to exercise their right to be interrogated voluntarily by the authorities.

29.10.22: The trial against four crew members of the iuventa and 17 other defendants charged with “aiding and abetting unauthorised immigration” was suspended due to procedural errors by the prosecution. The judge rejected the prosecution’s claim that the procedural errors could be ignored.

16.06.22: Due to procedural errors by the public prosecutor's office in relation to a lack of information for the defendants and the associated violations of fundamental rights, the proceedings were suspended until next fall.

21.05.22 Pre-trial in Trapani: After 5 years of investigation, the Trapani court opens the pre-trial to decide whether the case will go to trial or not. The request of the lawyers and the defendants to open the pre-trial to the public, and thus to independent observers of the trial, was approved by the judge but rejected by the prosecution for the now. The hearing revealed that there were procedural errors in the investigation, which the prosecution will have to correct or clarify in the coming weeks. The next hearing will take place on 05.07.22 in the presence of the accused.

Selected press and links collection in english and italian: