Italian Court Drops Charges Against Migrant Rescue Ship Crews And Ends Long-Running Legal Battle

ROME (AP) — An Italian court on Friday dismissed a long-running case against rescue ship crews of three humanitarian organizations, dropping charges accusing them of collaborating with smugglers as they helped rescue thousands of migrants at sea.

The judges in the Sicilian city of Trapani decided not to proceed to trial against 10 crew members involved in the so-called Iuventa case, named after the rescue vessel operated by German nonprofit Jugend Rettet.

Staff members from Jugend Rettet, Save The Children and Doctors Without Borders were fully acquitted of all charges of aiding and abetting illegal immigration.

Italian prosecutors started the case in 2017, accusing the crew members of serving as “taxis” for migrants, allegedly coordinating their search-and-rescue actions with human traffickers off the coast of Libya. They were also accused of returning dinghies and boats to smugglers to be reused, while rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean Sea whose lives were not in real danger.

Italy’s Interior Ministry had joined the lawsuit as plaintiff.

The court on Friday followed the surprise recommendation by prosecutors in February to dismiss all charges in the case, which the organizations had slammed for criminalizing their activity in the Mediterranean.

More than 20 people had been involved in the inquiry over the years, including boat captains, heads of mission and legal representatives, facing charges carrying sentences of up to 20 years.

“The truth has been recognized,” Save the Children said after the ruling.

The Iuventa crew members said "the case marked the onset of a public smear campaign against civil sea rescue, aimed at legitimizing crackdowns on rescue efforts.”

Jugend Rettet said its rescue ship had aided over 14,000 people in distress from 2016 until its seizure in the summer of 2017, when the case started.

Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF, stressed in a statement it had faced “seven years of false accusations, defamatory statements, and a blatant criminalization campaign towards organizations performing search and rescue operations at sea.”

Italian authorities began to focus on the issue in 2016, as Rome’s then center-left government was struggling to manage a double-digit increase in the number of migrants reaching the country’s coasts in a desperate attempt to reach Europe.

The current right-wing government led by Premier Giorgia Meloni has further stiffened Rome’s tough stance against migrant rescues in the Mediterranean, limiting ships to one sea rescue at a time, and forcing them to dock at an assigned port — rules the charities say are severely hitting rescues.