Six years under investigation and accused as alleged smugglers: All acquitted because they acted out of need

It was May 25, 2016, when an Italian Coast Guard ship arrived at the port of Palermo with 1052 people from various African countries on board. Those rescued wore bracelets of different colors on their wrists - purple, gold, silver, a total of eight colors, each of which assigned them to one of the eight ships rescued by the Coast Guard in the days before.

Among them were seventeen men, most of whom had just come of age. Like all the other 1035, they were in search of protection and safety in Europe. Unlike the others, however, they were isolated from the group on board the rescue ship and, upon arrival in port, immediately arrested for "aiding and abetting unauthorized entry" and placed in pre-trial detention.

For the 17 young men, this was the beginning of another harrowing experience, in the immediate aftermath of the traumatic journey they had just endured. A procedure that would leave them in limbo and uncertain about their future for years, until it eventually ended in March of this year with a final acquittal. 

Only a few hours after the rescue operation, the Palermo Public Prosecutor's Office started the investigation on board the Coast Guard vessel. The traumatized and exhausted people were interviewed to find out who had held the wheel and compass or had set off the distress call of the boats. Through the testimonies of about twenty people, seventeen "suspects" were identified.

This hostile attitude of the authorities towards vulnerable people, who only shortly before had to fear for their lives, is part of a systematic approach in the European fight against alleged “smuggler gangs". 

In the process, those seeking protection become scapegoats, used by Europe to evade responsibility for the deaths and violence on the way to Italy, which are caused by the EU's own migration policy. The ruthlessness of the authorities towards those seeking protection is particularly evident in the testimonies read out during the hearings in the trial of the 17 accused, which only hint at the severity of the psychological and mental trauma of those concerned. 

Ten of the defendants confirmed that they had carried out the actions they were accused of: Some had steered the boat, others had given directions, still others had been in possession of a telephone or compass. Witnesses as well as defendants confirmed that before departure they were in a violent and cruel environment, where Libyans would forcibly assign roles on the boat that could not be refused. This was also confirmed by a witness who experienced a dramatic incident: a man who had been commanded to steer the boat had decided to return to Libya out of fear that he would no longer be able to drive and was consequently killed by a Libyan smuggler.

The trial documents confirm that it is enough to originate from a country with a coastline to be appointed as captain and that any knowledge of English, albeit weak, is sufficient to get equipped with a phone that can be used to contact the coast guards in international waters. Thanks to the testimonies of the witnesses, who in three cases confirmed the use of force in the assignment of the roles on the boat, three of the defendants were already acquitted during the pre-trial.

For the others, the trial continued, and only thanks to the tireless efforts of the lawyers did it all end well. But it took years of proceedings before the defendants' state of emergency was finally recognized.

In the judgment, the Court of Palermo finally recognized that the defendants were not part of an organization that coordinates the smuggling of migrants, but had been spontaneously selected to do so at the time of departure. Moreover, like all other passengers, they paid a fee for the journey and the roles on board were assigned to them at gunpoint.

Furthermore, the court disagreed with the prosecution's thesis that the mere presence of the defendants in Libya constituted a voluntary creation of a dangerous situation. It was emphasized that this circumstance could only be relevant - if at all - in connection with the criminal offense of unauthorized entry and not that of aiding and abetting irregular entry. 

The evidence gathered by the defense during the pre-trial proceedings led first and foremost to the lifting of the pre-trial detention imposed on the 14 persons during the first instance proceedings. However, the acquittal of all defendants in 2018 led to fervent opposition, especially from the Italian right-wing. Their untenable rationale was based primarily on the allegedly unfulfilled criteria of a state of emergency: supposedly, the defendants themselves were responsible as they had voluntarily decided to trust smugglers and human traffickers in order to reach Europe. The anger also manifested itself in insults and threats against judges and lawyers. Giving in to this pressure, the public prosecutor's office appealed the verdict. 

This additional phase has led to an unbearable state of legal limbo for the defendants: they were freed from prison, but not from the trial. Like other people who had come to Italy with them, they had begun to build a new life after so many years: They worked in the countryside or in commerce, applied for asylum, went to school, learned the Italian language and formed new friendships - but the appeal process was still ahead of them.

On March 31, 2022, the court in Palermo finally rejected the appeal of the prosecution in the second instance and confirmed the acquittal of the first instance.

The team of lawyers, who from the outset firmly believed in the innocence of their clients, spent many hours searching for witnesses throughout Italy and travelled across Sicily to meet the accused and thus guarantee them an adequate defense. 

This kind of dedicated defense should be the norm, but unfortunately it isn’t often. Many have been in prison for years on similar charges. Only a few of them are lucky enough to be represented by lawyers who defend them with the same tenacity. The stories of these others will not be heard, and they will not receive justice.

This judgment is an immense victory. It is the success of a collective struggle that will not stop until every individual is freed from the risk of being imprisoned in European prisons for the supposed "crime" of moving freely to seek asylum.