From a Libyan football pitch to an Italian prison - Freedom for the four footballers!
With the European football championship in full swing, the fate of four young Libyan footballers will be decided in an Italian court in Rome this Friday 2 July. Joma, Ali, Abdelrahman and Muhannad tried to escape the war in Libya and pursue their football careers in Europe. There, they fell victim to the ruthless EU border regime and were sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Joma, Ali, Abdelrahman and Muhannad played for the Ahli Bengazi, the Al-Madina Club and the Libyan Tahadi Club. When the civil war in Libya erupted and they had to stop their training, they decided to try to reach Europe and follow their ambitions there. Ali was only 20 when he left the country.
In 2015, they crossed the Mediterranean sea on a wooden boat that carried more than 360 people. 49 people who were forced to sit in the hull asphyciated during the trip. The incident became known as the "Ferragosto Tragedy" named after the Italian holiday on which it happened.
In Italy, Joma, Ali, Abdelrahman and Mohannad were arrested as the "smugglers" and accused of "aiding and abetting illegal immigration", with the aggravating circumstances of having caused the death of 49 people.
They were each sentenced to 30 years in prison.
When their families in Libya learned about their arrests, they started, together with friends and the football clubs, to campaign for their innocence and release. Like this, they managed to get some attention and the four eventually even became part in a diplomatic game between Italy and Libyan Haftar who demanded their release as part of a prisoner exchange.
The families and the four desperately protest their innocence, stating that they only wanted to reach Europe and that they are now being make scapegoast in a malicious political game.
Ali: "(...) we didn’t drive the boat. We have been accused and condemned to 30 years only because we are Libyans. I would really like, one day, if it is possible, to confront with the judges that condemned me to understand why they did it and on which basis. If they only took into account and believed at least the 10% of what my lawyers proved them, I would have been acquitted but who knows why they didn’t do that."
The case of Joma, Ali, Abdelrahman and Mohannad is unfortunately not an isolated case but paradigmatic for yet another facet of Europe's policy of closing borders and deterrence. While European sea rescuers and activists gain a lot of media attention and support when becoming the target of increasing criminalisation, the everyday practice of incarcerating non-Europeans facing the very same accusations goes almost unnoticed. However, the people most affected by the criminalizing policies are not the ones supporting migration movements, but those who are forced to travel on insecure and illegalized routes. They constitute the majority of those being arrested and imprisoned in Italy and Greece on grounds of alleged "smuggling" and "aiding illegal immigration".
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 steer the boat, distributing water or bailing out a leak, charges ranging from simple smuggling to transnational criminal conspiracy and — if people asphyxiated below deck or drowned when a boat capsized — even murder. For every boat that disembarks, police arrests one or more people.
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 hours after their rescue, ususally still in a state of shock after surviving a shipwreck. Often, migrants are promised a residence permit in exchange for their collaboration.
The lawyers of the four believe that the fact they speak Arabic and are from Libya, and because Ali was allegedly passing water to some people who died during the crossing made other passengers and Italian police suppose they were part of those organising the journey.
Ali: "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."
Cinzia Pecoraro, Lawyer: "Can you imagine a 12-metre boat, with almost 400 people on, having a crew? The passengers are crushed one onto another and only one is driving the boat. They all try to survive but this doesn’t mean they are responsible for other passengers’ cruel death. They had no weapons and no knowledge of navigation, they were just passengers. My client was identified as a person giving out water on the boat, so that made him part of the crew - so now he's serving 30 years for giving out water."
Like Joma, Ali, Abdelrahman and Mohannad, people presented as the "criminal smugglers" are mostly migrants who have themselves paid for the trip across the sea, attempting to seek safety in the European Union. They fall victim to the ruthless EU policies against smuggling that do not only violate basic human rights but are also ineffective in destroying smuggling networks and stopping migration into Europe, which is their declared goal. As official documents recently revealed show, authorities in Italy know this far too well. However, it is the domestic win that counts. Like this, authorities present people fleeing poverty and violence with limited resources to defend themselves in court as "culprits" and divert from their very own responsibility for the death and drowning in the Mediterranean.
By now, Joma, Ali, Abdelrahman and Muhannad have already spent more than five years in jail. Their case will be heard by the Court of Cassation in Rome this Friday 2 July.
In letters sent from prison, Ali and Muhannad write:
Muhannad: "The Italian justice finished me. I lost everything I lost my ambition and I lost my future. I lost my girlfriend. (...) I don’t want lose myself in prison. Injustice, we are victims of miscarriage of justice."
Ali: "Thanks for thinking about me and thanks to everyone who is willing to help ... you have my consent and maximum availability, I authorize you to speak and write about our cases, and if it is possible to be our spokesman and spread the truth, trying to defend us from the many malicious tongues as we don’t have the possibility to protect ourselves and to show to the entire world and the people we know and who love us that we are innocent."
We call on Italy and the European Union to stop criminalising people for the fact that they are seeking safety, to end the arbitrary detention of refugees and migrants accused of smuggling! Freedom for Joma, Ali, Abdelrahman and Muhannad!
Read here the full letters sent by Ali und Muhanad from prison:
- Middle East Eye: Libyan footballers, Sicilian fishermen and their quest for freedom
- Middle East Eye: Italian fishermen's release dashes hopes for Libyan youths in Sicilian prison
- The Guardian: Footballers and fishermen: Italy's red prawn war with Libya turns ugly
- The Incercept: Friends of the Traffickers. Italy's Anti-Mafia Directorate and "Dirty Campaign" to Criminalize Migration
Friday, 25 June 2021