A photograph shows the tugboat 'Ace' Asso 22 from Augusta Offshore Naples. EPA/CIRO FUSCO


Italian ship master lands jail term after rescuing migrants and taking them to Libya


The Italian Court of Cassation has sentenced a ship’s master to a year in prison after he rescued 101 migrants from the sea and took them to disembark in Libya without notifying Rome.

Captain Giuseppe Sotgiu, of the commercial shipping vessel Asso 28, also called Asso Ventotto, was prosecuted by the highest court in Italy, which upheld an original decision declaring that international maritime law forbids the returning of refugees to Libya.

The jail term was handed down after Cpt Sotgiu was found guilty of abandoning minors or incapacitated persons and arbitrary disembarkation and abandonment of persons.

The prosecutor’s office in Naples stated the Asso 28 captain and crew had not taken any action to locate the exiles, determine their health or whether the youngsters were alone.

In addition, they failed to enquire as to whether the rescued individuals wanted to request asylum, all of which is in contravention of international conventions.

In 2018, the Asso 28 found a large rubber dinghy packed with passengers, including children and pregnant women, adrift in international waters about 105km from the Libyan shoreline. The crew then safely brought all the migrants aboard.

The ship’s owner Augusta Offshore and Cpt Sotgiu reported they had been in touch with the Libyan Maritime Command Centre through the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome.

A Libyan Coast Guard representative who it was said boarded the ship was reportedly then given the order by Tripoli to return the migrants to Libyan territory.

There was no proof that the Libyan MRCC had been notified, according to Naples prosecutors. Italian media also reported that the ship’s register did not indicate that any Libyan official was on board.

The captain is unlikely to go to jail, though, as sentences of less than four years are not typically served in prison in the Italian system.

The final ruling upholds two lower courts’ earlier verdicts. Although the latest was filed on February 1, Italian media outlets made it public over the weekend of February 17.

NGOs and open border activists commended the final verdict.

“Libya is not a safe country: we have been saying this for years and now the Supreme Court says it too,” Amnesty International Italy posted on X.

“Returning people to Libya and collaborating with the so-called coast guard contradicts the duty to bring rescued people to a safe place.

“Italian governments that have signed and renewed migration agreements have in fact made themselves complicit in serious violations. People first, then borders,” it concluded.

NGO Open Arms described the ruling as a “landmark judgment”.

The European Union and Italy operate a Border Assistance Mission in Libya, helping Libyan authorities manage the county’s borders and fight cross-border crime such as human trafficking, migrant smuggling and terrorism.

The mission is often criticised by NGOs, some of which allege widespread abuse in the detention centres funded by Europe.

Italian interior minister Matteo Piantedosi said the final judgment needed to be “contextualised” rather than seen as an “ideological interpretation” of the law.

According to Piantedosi, the affair illustrated the importance that “anyone who intervenes [in such a manner] must co-ordinate with the competent authorities … there can be no ‘spontaneity’.

“The important thing is that there is co-ordination.”