By Sarita Fratini

On June 10th, a Sudanese refugee, victim of the illegal refoulement from Asso Ventinove merchant vessel on the 1st and 2nd of July 2018, won the case brought against part of the Italian government (Council of Ministers, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Italian Embassy in Tripoli) at the Ordinary Court of Rome, Personal Rights and Immigration section.

The case stemmed from an unlawful pushback of 276 migrants, including the applicant, materially carried out by the Italian-flagged off-shore support ship Asso Ventinove, but ordered directly by the Italian Navy. The case remained secret until 2019, when it was discovered by the Josi & Loni Project collective, which was able to find 80 of the 276 victims. “The judge,” it is written in the executive ruling, “accepts the appeal and, as a result, declares the right of Mr. Appellant to apply for international protection in Italy and orders the competent administrations to issue all acts deemed necessary to allow his immediate entry into the territory of the Italian State.” A great victory for ‘Harry’ (fictitious name), for his legal team composed of lawyers Cristina Laura Cecchini, Loredana Leo, Giulia Crescini and Ginevra Maccarrone within the ASGI’s Sciabaca & Oruka project and for the JLProject.

Other appeals, still awaiting judgment, have been filed for the same case, especially the compensation case brought by five Eritrean citizens in 2021 against Corrado Pagani, captain of the Asso Ventinove, the Naples-based shipping company Augusta Offshore, and the Italian government. Among the five was a pregnant woman who was separated from her husband and was forced to give birth and raise her child on the floor of the terrible Triq al Sikka detention camp. Among those who could not sue their deporters were Josi and Seid, who died of starvation and disease in Libyan camps following deportation, and Amela, who was raped and murdered by a Libyan.

Today, Harry could be celebrating his long-awaited legal victory against the terrible injustice of the illegal deportation he suffered five years ago. But instead, he is suffering from a new atrocious injustice: the Italian embassy in Tripoli, headed by Ambassador Gianluca Alberini, refuses to respect the sentence issued by an Italian judge requiring it to immediately transfer the refugee to Italy. The sentence is enforceable and Harry is entitled to take a plane from Tripoli to Rome.

But unfortunately, he has no passport, a condition common to most refugees (Libyan camps’ guards steal money and documents from detainees). He only has the UNHCR document (refugee status), but this is not a travel document. The Italian Embassy in Tripoli lost the case and as a result of the ruling it must immediately issue a replacement document allowing Harry to board the plane. Yet it does not do so.

Harry is currently in the Tripoli area, where he survives hiding in a dilapidated building with 30 other refugees. They are all at risk of arrest as irregular migrants, an offense for which Libyan law 19/2010, which is currently in force, provides for indefinite imprisonment (including life imprisonment) with forced labour. A reality that Harry unfortunately knows well: in 2018, following refoulement, he was deported to the Libyan camp of Tarek al Mattar and there, tortured for a few weeks, probably to sap his morale, before being moved to forced labour. In five years, Harry has been in and out of several Libyan camps, where he has been the victim and witness of unspeakable violence. He is a registered refugee with UNHCR but has never been evacuated. He certainly cannot return to Sudan.

It is in this limbo that Harry was found and helped by the JLProject. The JLProject was founded in 2019 and is part of Mediterranea Saving Humans since February 2023. It is a collective currently made up of 50 ordinary citizens who carry out pro bono forensic investigations to help those whose rights have been violated and who cannot afford to hire an investigator. The JLProject has a particular focus on illegal refoulements in Libya: it finds victims and produces evidence dossiers for their lawyers.

Currently, the JLProject is working on 66 cases of deportations from international waters to Libyan detention camps with found victims. These deportations appear in the database of ‘Joint Operation Themis’, a European border control operation Frontex launched in 2018 in synergy with the Italian authorities and the support of EU Member States. Each of these cases is referred to as ‘Operation Themis’ and defined as an ‘incident’, with a six-digit number. Considering that only European governments and authorities participate in Operation Themis, by its institutional definition, and that collective rejections of foreigners at the border are forbidden in Europe, the 66 cases being investigated by the JLProject can be defined as illegal rejections and prosecuted in European courts.

But the biggest concern now is the Italian government’s refusal to respect the rulings of the Italian courts.

Article published in Echoes#7 – Moving on