A step toward state accountability for border violence and death at sea

On December 2, 2022, there was the last hearing of the criminal trial for the so-called “children shipwreck”, which occurred on 11 October 2013*.

For this event, in which 268 people lost their lives, two officials – L. Manna and L. Licciardi  – who were respectively coordinating the operational rooms of Italian Coast Guard (MRCC Rome) and Navy (CincNav) on that tragic day, were on the bar. Both were accused of refusal of official acts and multiple homicide.

It has taken nine years of judicial battle to see written, albeit on a statute of limitations and despite the request for acquittal made by the Rome Public Prosecutor’s Office, the trial acknowledged the responsibilities of the shipwreck of 11 October 2013, wrote the civil parties’ lawyers in their press statement.

On October 4, 2022, Rome Public Prosecutors (Colaiocco and Lionetti) had asked for the full acquittal of both defendants, arguing that “the fact did not exist”, and that there was no relationship between the behaviour of Manna and Licciardi and the death of the more than 250 people.

Against more than 5 hours of non-assistance and interlocutions between the people in distress and the Italian authorities, as well as between the Italian Coast Guard and the Navy, the “perimeter” of the judiciable facts was tentatively reduced to a lapse of time of less than 50 minutes. Namely, from 16:22 when Maltese RCC sent a fax to Italian MRCC, asking to send the Italian Navy Libra Ship and to “intervene as necessary” and  17:04, when the Libra Ship was ordered to go towards the target by Cincnav officials.

In that speech, instead of keeping an impartial approach, the public prosecutors had deliberately traced the pathway to be followed in the defensive strategy of the two officials, by outlining some key arguments, to which neither the defendants’ nor the state lawyers had much to add.

The main components of the state-promoted narrative were the following:

  • This trial was not against the “true responsible” of the tragedy, who were in any case the smugglers, the boat drivers, and possibly the people themselves, who choose to put their – and their children’s lives – in danger
  • The overcrowded boat was not in distress, the people’s lives were not in immediate danger, and this was not a SAR event
  • Subsequently, the defendants had no duty to intervene, and had not refused any official act
  • Even if the incident would have been a SAR event, Malta had assumed the coordination
  • Keeping the lapse of time of less than 50 minutes as a reference for judging the alleged crimes, the Coastguard and the Navy officials had acted with no delay, but paradoxically “in advance”

According to this defensive strategy, it is of no importance that the Syrian doctor M.J. was calling MRCC Rome since 12 in the morning desperately asking for help. Even if he had clearly explained in English, that the boat had been attacked by Libyan militias just after leaving Zuwarah, that this attack resulted in at least 2 injured kids and in a serious damage on the boat which was taking in water (almost 1 meter of water), this information was neither properly understood, nor duly reported by officers on duty. In practice, quoting from Hannah Arendt’s “The banality of evil”, “nobody knew anything”.

At the last hearing, after almost 4 hours of consultations, the judges came back and announced the following sentence: “the crimes cannot be prosecuted due to the intervened statute of limitations”. The silence fell in the room.

Certainly, defendants were not acquitted. But the decision was not fully understandable until when, on 16.12.22, it was published.

The wilful omission ascribed to the defendants, says the sentence no. 11988 of 16.12.22 of the Criminal Court of Rome, resulted in the death of the migrants and therefore the constitutive elements of all the ascribed crimes – namely, manslaughter and omission of official acts – exist.

In the 87 pages issued by the criminal court of Rome, the event was fully reconstructed, by quoting the conversations between Dr. M.J. and the Italian Coast Guard, and between the latter and the Italian Navy. All the exchanges – in which the nearest of two Italian Navy vessels which could have intervened (the Libra ship, which was 17 nautical miles from the boat in distress) was required not to intervene, to wait and finally to hide itself in order “not to be found on the conjunction between the Maltese patrol boat and the target”, were reconstructed in detail.

By breaking the temporal perimeter imposed by the prosecutor, the judge was able to provide an in-depth analysis of all the strategic actions undertaken by the Italian authorities, and then to show how they deliberately delayed the launch of a rescue operation. But this was not all. In the frame of a careful reconstruction of the legal framework of reference, made of international maritime law, human rights law and asylum law, the judge provided evidence of the connection between the actions – and inactions – of the defendants and the death of 286 people, amongst which more than 60 children.

This was an important result, coming after nine years of attempts to hinder the process itself. After two requests for archiving, the public prosecutor asked for compulsory indictment of the two officers. Moreover, due to the statute of limitations, the judges could have either acquitted the defendants, as unanimously requested by the prosecution and defence, or limited itself – in the decision – to providing a mere calculation of the statute of limitations.

This trial was a space where the voices of shipwreck survivors could finally be heard. 

In this space, the state-promoted narrative which criminalises people on the move, refugees, people who are obliged to choose irregular and potentially lethal pathways in order to exercise their fundamental right to leave, was overthrown. The criminal behaviour was that of state authorities, and of the two public officials, who could have prevented the shipwreck by acting in accordance with their duties, and to international law.

Our clients who, in the five hours at sea, during which they waited in vain for rescue, saw their relatives and in many cases their children drown, and risked their own lives, have always asked us to ensure that what happened would not happen again, and that is why they have also endured the agony of this long process, wrote the lawyers. And continued, today we can hope that this decision will remind everyone of the conventional and legislative duties incumbent on those who operate and manage sea rescue. The decision of the Court of Rome does not only concern past events, but also those of today and the future: human lives at sea must always be saved, and no order, or convenience, can suppress this inescapable duty.

Establishing responsibilities for death at sea – and at the border – is a step further, towards breaking the wall of silence, which relatives, friends and community members of missing persons have to face everyday. A step toward state accountability for border violence and death at sea.

Picture: Alarmphone

By Chiara Denaro  

ECHOES Issue 4, January 2023