Italian captain given jail term for returning migrants to Libya

Giuseppe Sotgiu found guilty of violating international laws that forbid the forced return of people to countries where they are at risk.

Sotgiu handed 101 migrants to the Libyan coastguard after rescuing them in the Mediterranean Sea [File: Taha Jawashi/AFP via Getty Images]

A ship’s captain who handed 101 migrants over to the Libyan coastguard after rescuing them in the Mediterranean Sea has been given a one-year jail term, in the first such case heard by Italy’s courts.

Giuseppe Sotgiu was found guilty of violating international laws that forbid the forced return of people to countries where they are at risk.

He was piloting the Asso 28, an Italian-flagged offshore ship supplying oil platforms off Libya, at the time of the rescue on July 30, 2018. The migrants – including five pregnant women and five minors – were picked up from an unseaworthy dinghy in international waters and handed over to the Libyan coastguard at the port of Tripoli.

International organisations operating rescue operations told Al Jazeera that, albeit it being a “step in the right direction”, the judgement punishes one individual while it neglects to address the responsibility of Libya and European Union states.

“If you condemn a person for handing migrants to [the Libyan coastguard], you are putting into question the legitimacy of that authority,” Giorgia Linardi, the spokeswoman in Italy for the German non-governmental organisation Sea Watch, told Al Jazeera.

Italy and the EU have financed and trained Libya’s coastguard specifically to halt the flow of migrants. In July, members of Sea Watch filmed Libyan maritime authorities chasing a crowded migrant boat and shooting in its direction, in an apparent effort to stop it from crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Linardi praised the judgement for underlining the principle that returning migrants to Libya is a crime but noted that the same principle is not being applied to European states cooperating with the so-called Libyan coastguard.

The court now has 90 days to publish its ruling, which will provide more information on the chain of command that guided Sotgiu’s decision to take the migrants back to Libya.

The judgement is unlikely to result in actual jail time for the captain, who can appeal against the conviction.

“It’s important to underline the responsibility of the captain, but who gave that order should also be punished,” Linardi said.

Augusta Offshore, the owner of Asso 28, claimed at the time that the rescue had been coordinated by a Libyan coastguard officer and the Marine Department of Sabratha, a city on the Libyan coast.

Italian prosecutors said they could find no trace of a marine department in Sabratha nor evidence that maritime rescue coordination offices in Italy or Libya had been alerted.

It is unclear whether the Italian coastguard had any involvement in directing Sotgiu’s actions.

Italy’s rescue operation Mare Nostrum was shut down in 2014 and not replaced. Private ships are at times requested by the Italian coastguard to help migrants in distress.

Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) has also hailed Thursday’s ruling as a positive step, at a time when NGOs rescuing migrants at sea are coming under scrutiny.

Earlier this year, Save the Children, MSF and the German organisation Jugend Rettet were subject to an investigation over alleged aiding of illegal immigration, in what MSF described as one of a series of attempts to criminalise sea rescues.

Frauke Ossig, MSF’s representative for search and rescue, told Al Jazeera that it was important for people to realise that “Libya is not a place where people can be brought back to safety”.

Ossig said she hoped the ruling would enable NGOs to operate rescue missions freely in the future.

“European states must acknowledge the sentence and recognise that returning migrants to Libya is refoulement and a crime under international law,” Ossig said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies