Vos Thalassa: recognized right to self-defense against refoulement to Libya

On the 18th of December, the last instance Italian Court of Cassation acquitted two men, Ibrahim Bushara, a Sudanese national, and Hamid Ibrahim, from Ghana, who were previously accused of aggravated violence as well as of aiding and abetting illegal immigration in relation to the Vos Thalassa episode. Eventually, the Court recognized their right to self-defence in opposing the return to an unsafe place such as the Libyan State.

On the 8th of July 2018, 67 people on board a small wooden boat were rescued in the Libyan SAR area by Vos Thalassa, a tugboat flying the Italian flag. Italian authorities were informed of the operation and forwarded the communication to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, which asked the Vos Thalassa to head towards the North African coast so to allow the transfer of the people onto its patrol boats. However, during the night, one of the passengers realised that the boat had changed course and was heading south, towards the Libyan coast.

Faced with the prospect of being returned to Libya, the very place where they had fled from, fear and panic spread amongst the rescued people aboard. They tried to convince the crew members to not bring them back, some allegedly also making threats. Following this behaviour, the Italian MRCC intervened at the request of the crew of the tugboat and sent the Coast Guard naval unit Diciotti to bring them to Italy, eventually disembarked on the 12th of July.
Once docked, the first people to get off the boat were Ibrahim Bushara and Hamid Ibrahim, who were accused of being the "leaders" of the so-called “revolt”, therefore accused of aggravated private violence against the captain and crew of the Vos Thalassa as well as of aiding and abetting illegal immigration.

In a judgment handed down on 23 May 2019, the Preliminary Hearing Judge of Trapani, held that the conduct ascribed to the two accused migrants could not be punished, recognising the existence of the justification of self-defence on the assumption that they had acted to protect their right not to be sent back to Libya, where they would have been exposed to the concrete danger of violence and inhuman or degrading treatment. On the contrary, in July 2020, the Court of Appeal of Palermo overturned the judgment and condemned Ibrahim Bushara and Hamid Ibrahim to 3 years and 6 months of jail, not recognizing the non-refoulement as a subjective right but just as a principle of conduct imposed to single states. According to this interpretation, the people were not entitled to any personal right and their threatening behaviour was not excused.

Finally, now the two men were acquitted, and their actions justified. Indeed, if they had not opposed the crew’s decision to go back to Libya, they would have been reconducted there, having once again their lives threatened, in violation of the principle of non-refoulement.