Press release: Italian High Court Sentences Libyan Football Players to 30 Years for Alleged Smuggling and Murder

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Berlin/Rome - Yesterday, on 2 July 2021, Italy’s highest court confirmed the sentence of 30 years’ prison for four Libyan footballers accused of murder and people smuggling. Human rights organizations and journalists have highlighted that the investigation and trials have been characterized by contradictions in the witness statements and inconsistencies.

The four young men – Joma, Ali, Abdelrahman and Mohannad – left Libya in 2015, fleeing the civil war and hoping to continue their careers on the pitch in Europe. Tragically, 49 other migrants trapped below deck died during the journey across the Mediterranean. The police investigations following the landing identified the four Libyan migrants as part of the ship’s ‘crew’ and responsible for the deaths. Yet journalists and their defense lawyers have noted inconsistencies and errors in the investigation and trials for years.

"We have been informed that the cassation court has rejected the appeals and confirmed the conviction. We will wait for the judge to submit the official explanation and meanwhile we will start working on reopening the case because we are convinced of our clients' innocence." Serena Romano, the lawyer defending Joma Tarek

Claudia Gazzini from the International Crisis Group states: "There continues to be a judicial stubborness to this case, which is really disconcerting. But we continue to believe in the innocence of these young men and will continue to fight for their release."

The four accused, who have already been in prison for more than five years, as well as their families back in Libya, maintain their innocence. In a letter sent from prison, Ali, one of the defendants, writes: "They only asked me if I was from Libya, and I answered 'yes'. They brought me away because I come from a country where the war reigns and only due to a bottle of water, that I didn’t even hand over, they condemned me to 30 years."

The NGO ‘borderline-europe’, who is in contact with two of the accused and their families, comments: “We are deeply disappointed in today’s decision, for the four young men and their families in Libya who have not seen them for years. We have followed many similar cases before in which authorities arrest people who seek safety and have themselves paid for the trip across the sea as the 'smugglers'. Like this, people with limited resources to defend themselves in court are presented as 'culprits' and held responsible for migrant boat disasters, while the real culprits are European governments who close borders and force people into dangerous situations."

The basis for this is legislation that considers any person found to have played an active role during the crossing as a smuggler, from holding the tiller to steering the boat, distributing water or bailing out a leak, charges ranging from simple smuggling to transnational criminal conspiracy and — if people suffocate below deck or drown when a boat capsized — even murder. The arrests that follow these often-unfounded accusations of smuggling are arbitrary, built on hasty investigations and coercive interrogations. At sea, witnesses are interviewed by the police mere hours after their rescue, usually still in a state of shock after surviving a shipwreck.

While European sea rescuers and activists gain a lot of media attention when becoming the target of increasing criminalisation, the everyday practice of incarcerating non-Europeans facing the very same accusations goes almost unnoticed. However, they constitute the majority of those being arrested and imprisoned in Italy and Greece on grounds of alleged "smuggling" and "aiding illegal immigration".

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© Foto: Michele Bitetto, Unsplash

Friday, 03 July 2021