‘No smuggling charges pressed’: Activist aboard ‘preventatively’ seized migrant rescue ship to RT

An activist aboard the German NGO ship Iuventa, which has been impounded by Italian authorities on suspicion of conspiring with human traffickers, told RT that the seizure took place during a seemingly routine check and nobody has yet been officially charged.

The 33-meter vessel is operated by the charity Jugend Rettet, which is said to have rescued and brought to Europe around 6,500 migrants last year. The vessel has been kept on the Italian island of Lampedusa since Tuesday evening.

Tommaso Gandini, an activist aboard the vessel, told RT’s video agency Ruptly that there were no unusual encounters at sea before the impounding, and that police interest only began while on-shore as an apparently routine request for an "interview."

“Once docked in Lampedusa, we disembarked normally… After some routine checks, we were asked to stay for the night in order to be questioned in the morning. Again this was presented as a routine operation,” said Gandini, who said he represents Over the Fortress, an NGO campaign against border controls.

“This interrogation started spontaneously, without the presence of any lawyer, only as witnesses. We discovered that the boat was being searched. At that stage, we decided to reach the boat and not to declare our intentions in front of the police any longer,” Gandini explained.

The charity said their legal teams are "working hard to examine the legal basis of the confiscation" of the ship. The organization added that the seizure prevents them from being able to help and forces them to "stand still and watch the continuing distress of people and loss of life in the Mediterranean."

Meanwhile Ambrogio Cartosio, a public prosecutor from Trapani, announced that the authorities have been monitoring the activities of the Iuventa since last year. They allegedly noted at least three incidents when, instead of being rescued at sea, the migrants were simply “handed over” to the crew by people smugglers.

“People on the Iuventa are believed to have taken on board, on at least two separate occasions, migrants escorted by Libyan traffickers whose lives were not in danger,” Cartosio said.

“The evidence is serious. We have evidence of encounters between traffickers, who escorted illegal immigrants to the Iuventa, and members of the boat’s crew,” Cartosio added, as police photo evidence of the alleged incidents was published in the Italian media.

The prosecutor, however, said the vessel was seized preventatively as it appears there was no “coordinated plan,” nor any money exchanged, and the NGO was likely driven by “humanitarian motives” when they reached an “understanding” with the smugglers.

Cartosio said that, so far, no suspects had been singled out or legal charges pressed, which Gandini has also confirmed.

“After a long and meticulous search, we were let go but I want to stress that we were free to leave at any time, and at this stage the direction of the investigation of Trapani's Prosecutor Office against aiding illegal migrants remains unknown. Neither the crew nor the NGO has been formally accused of anything,” he told Ruptly.

The impounding comes days after Jugend Rettet joined several NGOs which refused to sign a new code of conduct for Mediterranean activist groups. Italy also signaled its stated intention to crack down on illegal migration by sending a ship to the Libyan coast Wednesday to help the local guard to better maintain control of its coast.

More than 95,000 migrants arrived in Italy by sea from Africa in the first seven months of 2017, almost the same figure as last year. In total, about 600,000 are thought to have traveled from Libya to Italy through the Mediterranean since 2014.