By iuventa crew

As we approach the end of the preliminary trial, we want to take a look back… 

After its start in May 2022, the preliminary phase of the trial against the four defendants of the iuventa-crew is entering its final phase. It is expected that at the beginning of 2024, the judge of the Trapani court will decide whether the case has to continue in a main trial or to dismiss the charges. Given the systematic rejection so far of all requests of our lawyers, we are not very optimistic.

Despite this, we would like to use this turning point to emphasize once again that this trial should never have taken place, and to demand the charges to be dropped. But above all, we would like to remind once again that the only response of European states to the thousands of deaths at their borders every year is to raid and imprison people on the move and to obstruct in every possible way the operations of the civilian fleet.

The case against iuventa is one of the many spaces of resistance and denunciation of a network that confirms that the struggle for justice at the borders is active and powerful. In the face of the will of states to criminalize migration and mutual support, they will not succeed in silencing us or in making us give up. 

The last phase of the preliminary trial, during which mainly procedural issues have been discussed, will take place in the coming months. In this final phase, the closing arguments of the various parties involved will be presented. The first step was the oral, or written, presentation of the defendants’ statements. In mid-December it will be the turn of the prosecution’s closing arguments and those of the defense lawyers. 

On October 13, and for the first time since the investigations began seven years ago, the iuventa defendants were given the opportunity to defend themselves against the prosecution’s accusations. Two of the statements were read out in court and we have made them public in their entirety (https://www.iuventa-crew.org/en/2023/10/14/inside-courtroom-incl-video/). Few minutes after the first defendant began to read his statement, two of the prosecutors, including the chief prosecutor, left the courtroom. We wondered what it is they don’t want to hear. 

“It is completely incomprehensible to me that the statements by the three authorities that were present on the spot (two military units in the air and one military unit in immediate proximity to the IUVENTA during the period in question) have not been used to verify the testimonies of the IMI Security employees. In fact, these statements are not even part of the investigation files. After seven years!”

Extract from the court statement of Sascha Girke, iuventa-crew defendant

As already confirmed in 2018 by the “Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture” research agency at Goldsmiths (University of London) (https://forensic-architecture.org/investigation/the-seizure-of-the-iuventa), the defendants’ statements demonstrate once more that each of the prosecution’s accusations are unfounded. Our statements are in line with the findings of the Goldsmiths analysis, showing that the iuventa crew did not return empty boats to smugglers, as they were accused of having done. Nor did they collaborate with anyone connected to the smuggling networks to arrange so-called “handovers”, as the Italian authorities claimed. 

In our statement we described in detail the operations under suspicion, those of 10 September 2016 and 18 June 2017. We wondered why the prosecution relied solely on the testimony of IMI Security employees – Ballestra, Montanino and Gallo – who were deployed on the VOS HESTIA, and whose background and motivations are highly questionable as evidenced by their known connections to radical right-wing organizations.

We wondered why the prosecution never wanted to take the testimonies of two aerial military units and one naval military unit, all of which were involved jointly with iuventa in the rescues, and which could corroborate our version of events. “This leads me to question the intentions of the public prosecutor’s office and to what extent political motives guided this investigation”, said Sascha in closing his speech.

We recalled with pain how in May 2017, in order to bug the iuventa, the IMRCC forced us to leave the SAR area even though there were several cases of boats in distress. While we were on our way to Lampedusa, five boats disappeared at sea, thousands of people drowned in the area we had just forcibly left. “I wish the prosecution had had to listen to the cries of the thousand people from the five boats that disappeared. They drowned so that we could be investigated,” lamented Dariush in his speech. Although the main prosecution would not, once again, listen.  It seems clear what they did not want to hear. 

“I don’t think a judge should give you the feeling that he has already decided against you, just because he has read the indictment. In fact, I expect a judge to be interested in information that can give him a better overview. The presumption of innocence also applies to us. Doesn’t it? This brings me to the question of fundamental rights. Again, I have been surprised at how often they have been denied to us in this courtroom.”

Extract from the court statement of Dariush Beigui, iuventa-crew defendant

During the intervention in court we also reviewed the violations of the fundamental elements of a fair trial during this preliminary phase. As we denounced in the #NoTranslationNoJustice campaign, less than 3 percent of the entire file has been translated. Despite this, the judge keeps considering that “essential information” is available to the defendants. Regrettably, what is to be considered “essential” is largely left to the member states and ultimately to the discretion of national prosecutors and judges. But what is essential for an effective defense?

According to Nicola Canestrini, “this should be determined by putting the rights of the defendant in front and center of every determination.” Since European law does not clearly define what can be considered “essential information”, we have repeatedly asked to bring this issue before the European Court of Justice. Each and every time our request has been rejected by the judge. According to EULITA, the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association, this is even a European-wide problem, as “ridiculous remuneration keeps qualified interpreters far away from courtrooms with the consequence that hearings have to be suspended, time is wasted and costs ramp up.”

Furthermore, the impossibility of conducting an adequate interrogation due to the lack of proper interpretation, on up to three occasions, is further evidence that fundamental rights are being violated in the iuventa trial. The experts summoned by the judge to assess the quality of the interpretation during the interrogations were categorical. They concluded that the interpreters provided by the authorities were not adequate, as essential parts could not be understood by the accused. Contrary to the experts’ assessment, the judge ruled that the overall meaning of the translated parts was sufficient for general fairness of the procedure and considered that the interrogation had been carried out.

 “It’s time to rethink the whole discipline. As of today, this criminal case against individuals has taken on broader legal scope, extending beyond this singular case. This is a significant development for us as it fully reflects the nature of the charges, which were never only about the individual defendants but rather an attack on all who have engaged in similar conduct, are currently doing so, or may do so in the future.”

Francesca Cancellaro, iuventa lawyer

Despite the judge’s systematic refusal of each and every element raised by the defense lawyers, we had few but very important successes in the last year. After years of preparatory work, our lawyer Francesca Cancellaro filed a complaint asking the Court of Trapani to refer the case to the European Court of Justice for an assessment of the “facilitation of unauthorized migration” laws. Lawyer Cancellaro argues that both the so-called Facilitator’s Package and Article 12 of the Italian Immigration Act violate fundamental rights of individuals laid down in both international and Italian law. Key information about the complaint is available on our platform (https://daten.solidarity-at-sea.org/s/nHqAwwf6GPzPp43).

What experts in international law and human rights defined as a “sublime work” was dismissed by the judge in Trapani as “unfounded.” However, his decision did not address the arguments submitted, but left them largely unconsidered. 

“It is time the focus shifts on the rights of those arrested as suspected “smugglers” who are usually sentenced to long prison terms without consideration of any circumstances. The EU legal framework provides the perceived legitimization and the juridical opportunity for EU member states to abuse criminal law against people on the move and those in solidarity. European courts at this stage are still contributing to the ever increasing death toll in the Mediterranean. The racist and violent implementation of neo-colonial interests needs to stop once and for all.”

Kathrin Schmidt, iuventa-crew defendant

Thankfully, a few weeks later, in the context of the Kinshasa case, in which a woman of Congolese origin faces charges of facilitating unauthorized entry into Italy under Article 12, lawyer Cancellaro re-filed the complaint. On this occasion, the judge of the Bologna court accepted the request in its entirety. The European Court of Justice will now have to make an assessment on the basis of the legal arguments presented by Cancellaro. This success goes beyond the case against iuventa, and represents hope for the movement against the criminalisation of migration and mutual support at the European borders. As far as we know, it is the first time that migration facilitation laws have been challenged. 

Using one of the largest lawsuits against SAR organizations to attack the core of the criminalisation of people on the move and mutual support is an act of poetic justice.

“Negligence in custody is a crime under Italian law. We expect a thorough investigation which will assess if and who violated their duty to maintain the perfect functionality of the seized sea rescue vessel, which was completely abandoned.”

Nicola Canestrini, iuventa lawyer

Finally, iuventa’s strategy also includes demanding accountability for those responsible for the abandonment and destruction of the rescue ship, confiscated in 2017. The report which followed the technical inspection carried out in October 2022, commissioned by the owners of the vessel and authorized by the G.I.P of Trapani, indicates that “once on board it was evident that the ship has been in a state of total abandonment from the date of seizure” because “no ordinary or extraordinary maintenance has been carried out”. The iuventa-crew filed a criminal complaint to the Trapani Prosecutor’s Office on 12th of February 2023, requesting an investigation into the abandonment and destruction of the rescue ship. On the 21st of November, 12 NGOs joined the iuventa complaint. 

Since the beginning of 2023 alone, in 12 cases NGO ships have been detained in Italy, while in the same period more than 2,300 people lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean. Measures such as seizure and detention are part of a systematic practice in Italy to obstruct civilian search and rescue operations. This has progressed since the seizure of the iuventa and has been escalated by the Piantedosi decree. Any attack on a rescue ship has an impact on the entire civilian fleet and ultimately on the lives and safety of people on the move. The joint effort of the NGOs underlines the importance of holding state actors accountable for their actions in seizing and destroying life saving assets.

With all this…

We approach this final phase of the preliminary trial with mixed feelings. On the one hand the proceedings have further confirmed what we have been repeating since we first learned that an investigation had been opened against us: this trial is political. The total lack of evidence and the violation of fundamental rights during the trial, the decision of the ministry of interior and the prime minister’s office to present itself as a private prosecution, reminds us that justice is subject to the power game. It is the same justice that abandons and even imprisons all those who seek to protect their lives in dignified conditions.

At the same time, the constant expressions of solidarity, the extraordinary work and support from our lawyers, and the fact that we feel part of a much larger movement that fights tirelessly to transform this murderous power keep us strong. We are certain that when people come together and walk together they are capable of achieving anything.

As we approach the end of the preliminary trial, we want to take a look back… 

To keep moving forward…