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Some news about the experience of the Cap Anamur

By Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, University of Palermo, Italy

10 luglio 2006

The judge for the preliminary hearing at Agrigento has decided to commit Elias Bierdel and the captain and the first officer of the Cap Anamur for trial.

The Cap Anamur is the German vessel which was involved in the notorious case in which the Italian, German and Maltese governments refused to disembark shipwreck survivors picked up in the Canal of Sicily between Lampedusa and Libya.

After a two year investigation during which the testimony of multiple witnesses was heard it seemed that all of the accusations made by the district attorney at Agrigento were baseless. The accusation that the Cap Anamur (held off the coast of Sicily for two weeks by the Italian government ) had run the naval blockade imposed on it was discarded because an emergency situation had arisen due to the extended period the shipwreck survivors had remained on board during which time they were prevented from disembarking or from asking for asylum or humanitarian aid. It was also clear that the reconstruction of the facts was deceptive and, in order to support the spurious accusation of collusion, went so far as to implicate the second in command although he has no independent authority over the ship ( all decision making responsibility lies with the captain).
The Agrigento judge’s decision seems based exclusively on the events which took place between the rescue operation and the Cap Anamur’s request to land at Porto Empedocle. During this period, the Italian, German and Maltese governments and the Cap Anamur were already in contact and had worked together to try to disembark the shipwreck survivors within rules of international conventions and to protect their lives and their asylum rights. In fact, the judge’s decision is merely submissive alignment with the original accusation formulated by the district attorney of Agrigento without considering any of the evidence which emerged during the initial investigation.
The fundamental facts that seem to have been ignored throughout this episode are that: even before the shipwreck survivors disembarked at Porto Empedocle they had put forward a request for asylum, various representatives of humanitarian agencies (including Dr. Christopher Hein of the Italian consortium for refugees or CIR) had boarded the vessel while it was still in open water and the representatives of these humanitarian agencies had formalized the clearly expressed desire of the shipwreck survivors to ask for asylum. As a number of articles published at the time attest, the CIR was at the center of a negotiation between the Italian and German governments on the destiny of the Cap Anamur and its human cargo yet no one seems to take those negotiations into consideration despite their importance in determining the actions and behavior of the commander of the Cap Anamur.
The fact that the accused remain behind bars confirms that the authorities intend to prosecute those who carry out humanitarian actions. This reprehensible behavior is completely in line with previous accusations raised by Sicilian magistrates against fisherman who have saved other migrants from drowning. The effect of this policy is that in recent years fishermen have limited themselves to notifying the police of migrant laden vessels in peril and as a consequence, there are more people drowned and lost at sea.
With the start of what is likely to be a long trial, the Cap Anamur case is open again. The testimony which will be given during the trail will hopefully shed light on the dark side of this affair and will show how despite weeks of negotiations, the Italian, German and Maltese governments were unable to apply the accords of the Convention of Dublin which establishes the country which has authority over asylum applicants. What is certain to emerge is that these governments are attempting to criminalize any form of immigration even if it means endangering shipwreck victims and those who may be seeking asylum.
The associations and movements which were supporting both the migrants saved by the Cap Anamur and those that helped save them, will scrutinize all phases of the trial for evidence of the political and institutional responsibility for dire actions taken during border management action and expulsions from the Canal of Sicily which are certain to emerge. In recent weeks, the European Court for Human Rights has decided to open formal hearings against the previous Italian government for those same actions; specifically investigating collective expulsions which took place in 2004 and 2005 from Lampedusa to Libya.