Iuventa trial crumbles: main prosecution witnesses completely discredited

by Julia Winkler, borderline-europe

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.

After almost two years of preliminary hearings, the two main prosecution witnesses were summoned to court in Trapani last Saturday, 10 February 2024, to be cross-examined. The witnesses, Pietro Gallo and Floriana Ballestra, are two ex-police officers who were hired as employees of the security company "IMI Security Service" on the Save the Children ship "Vos Hestia" in 2016. Both had been fired from the police service due to a long list of serious misconduct in office, fraud and deception. Gallo, for example, was dismissed for planting drugs in the car of a love rival in order to get him out of the way.

However, when the two former officials, whose integrity had been previously judged by authorities to be so compromised that they were deemed unfit for state service, reached out to those very authorities in 2016 with alleged eyewitness reports of "suspicious" behavior by civilian sea rescue organizations, they were welcomed with open arms, and the credibility of their statements was unquestioned.

Moreover, the public prosecutor's office was well aware from the beginning, through intercepted and documented phone calls, that the two individuals were seeking to rejoin the police force or embark on a political career with the far-right Northern League. They attempted to reach out to both Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni to provide them with information and materials for their election campaigns. Salvini requested that they actively seek compromising material. When their efforts to return to the police force or gain a position within the party failed, Pietro Gallo even publicly recanted his accusations.

However, all of these details were intentionally overlooked.

Instead, the testimonies of two discredited former officials, who consistently prioritized their own interests and had clear affiliations with right-wing, anti-immigration parties, were exploited as a convenient excuse to disrupt sea rescue operations. Leveraging this "evidence," authorities seized a ship and orchestrated the seizure in a media-effective manner, spreading various assumptions and rumors in the press, in oder to discredit civilian sea rescuers; forced activists to redirect their time, energy, and funds.

Fake investigations also a strategic tool on Lesbos

The parallels to the trial of Sara Mardini, Seán Binder & Co of the #FreeHumanitarians on Lesbos are unmistakable. Thus far, the investigating authorities have not even tried to substantiate their claims. At the last hearing on 16 January, which dealt with the misdemeanours, the prosecution's main witnesses, police and coast guard officers, either did not appear or were unable to provide any relevant information. All 16 defendants were acquitted of all charges, which included espionage and the unauthorised use of radio frequencies – after six years of proceedings, at the beginning of which some even had to spend three months in pre-trial detention. The trial for the felony of aiding and abetting unauthorized entry hasn't even commenced.

The witnesses in the trial against the iuventa crew too delivered an almost farcical performance in the courtroom last Saturday. "At this point, they have completely discredited themselves and everything they previously stated," remarked Sascha Girke, one of the four iuventa crew defendants, following the 10-hour trial.

If the shoddy, sometimes absurdly amateurish, and easily debunked "investigative work" were to be a cause for relief, it underscores one crucial point: the intention was never genuinely about securing a conviction. The investigating authorities likely knew from the outset that the allegations could never withstand scrutiny in a courtroom. Rather, the investigations were a strategic means of obstruction. The trials, which only properly deal with the accusations years later, are merely secondary in this strategy.

Thus, if the case against the iuventa crew is – hopefully – dropped in March, it will only provide a partial cause for celebration. Similar to the trial on Lesbos, the absence of evidence and the stunning incompetence of the authorities revealed throughout the proceedings serve as a shocking reminder of how effortlessly state actors can deploy extensive legal mechanisms to thwart unwelcome activism, without facing any repercussions for their actions.

➔ You can find more information about the proceedings on the iuventa-crew website, in their press release of 11/02/2024 and in the accompanying press kit.

➔ Chronology of the events: Iuventa: "We risk 20 years in prison, but they won't end solidarity!"