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Italy: UN experts condemn criminalisation of migrant rescues

GENEVA (18 July 2019) – UN human rights experts* have expressed grave concern over the detention and criminal proceedings in Italy against the German captain of the migrant rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3, and stated that the threats to the judge who ruled her release were unlawful.

“Rescuing migrants in distress at sea is not a crime,” the experts said. “We urge the Italian authorities to immediately stop the criminalisation of search and rescue operations.”

Carola Rackete was arrested and placed under house arrest on 29 June 2019 after Sea-Watch 3 entered the Italian port of Lampedusa with 40 migrants on board. On 1 July 2019, Rackete faced a judge over accusations that she had ignored police in docking at Lampedusa and that she had hit a police patrol boat. The judge dismissed the charges the next day, ruling that Rackete had been fulfilling her duty to rescue persons in distress at sea, and ordered her immediate release. She has since received death and rape threats and has been targeted online through sexist messages.

She remains under investigation in separate criminal proceedings over allegations relating to endangering the lives of police officers and facilitating illegal migration. If convicted, she could face up to 15 years in prison.

“Ongoing attempts to suppress NGO search and rescue operations put the lives of thousands of migrants attempting to cross the sea at risk,” said Obiora C. Okafor, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity. “This prosecution could have a chilling effect on migrant rights defenders and on civil society as a whole,” added Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders.

Since her decision to release Rackete, the judge has been attacked in the media. The Minister of Interior, Matteo Salvini, has said via social media that the ruling was a “political judgment” that allowed the liberation of a “criminal”, and invited the judge, whom he described as “a leftist”, to take off her robe and stand for election with the Democratic Party.

“Ideological political accusations made against a judge by authorities of the executive simply for fulfilling a well-established norm of public international law establishing a duty to rescue persons in distress at sea constitute a serious breach of the principles of judicial independence and the separation of powers. The duty to respect and abide by the judgments and decisions of the judiciary constitutes a necessary corollary of the principle of separation of powers,” said Diego García-Sayán, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

“Politicians should refrain from commenting on judicial decisions, especially when legal proceedings are still ongoing. Public statements and personal attacks by high-ranking political figures are a serious interference with the autonomy of individuals judges, and may have the effect of hampering the authority of the judiciary as an autonomous branch of the State power,” García-Sayán said.

UN experts have previously expressed concern, in two official letters to the Italian government, over the criminalisation or blocking of humanitarian help for migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, including the refusal to allow NGO vessels to disembark in Italian ports.

On 14 June 2019, Italy passed an emergency decree, imposing fines on vessels for every person rescued at sea and transferred to Italian territory, as well as threatening them with having their licenses revoked or suspended.

“These rushed legislative measures have the potential to seriously undermine the human rights of migrants, including victims of arbitrary detention, torture, and other serious human rights violations,” the experts said. “They directly contravene Italy’s human rights obligations arising in the course of search and rescue operations, including the non-derogable obligation to respect and protect the right to life.”


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