Sea rescue in the mediterranean: the iuventa will not be released

The ship of the aid organization Jugend Rettet remains impounded. This was decided on Tuesday by the Italian Supreme Court in Rome.

The day after the seizure in August 2017: the Iuventa in the port of Lampedusa Photo: dpa

It is a bitter blow for the aid organization Jugend Rettet: Their ship, the Iuventa, remains impounded. The Court of Cassation in Rome, the highest legal authority in Italy, has rejected the organization’s appeal and confirmed the decision of the lower court in Trapani, Sicily, last September. An appeal is not possible. The legal means to take action in Italy against the seizure of the ship have thus been exhausted.

"We are shocked and angry," Philipp Kulker, spokesman for Jugend Rettet, commented on the Italian decision at a press conference held by the aid organization in Berlin on Tuesday morning. He called the accusations of the Italian authorities, according to which the organization is supposed to have cooperated with tugboats, "completely far-fetched." The seizure of the ship last August was politically motivated and directed against the organization itself, he said.

Since 2016, Italian authorities have been investigating Jugend Rettet on suspicion of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. The organization itself only learned of this through the seizure of the Iuventa on August 2, 2017. This was done preventively – so far there have been no charges, let alone a verdict.

In essence, the Italian prosecution accuses the organization of taking three wooden boats back to Libyan waters after a rescue. According to Jugend Rettet, the Italian authorities misrepresented the incident in question on June 18, 2016. A reconstruction of the events by the London-based Forensic Oceanography organization based on Reuters news agency images of the operation in question shows that the crew of the Iuventa acted correctly at all times.

Political motivation of the seizure

There are also considerable doubts about the legality of the accusations from other quarters. There are also indications that the seizure of the Iuventa was politically motivated: It took place just one day after Jugend Rettet, together with other NGOs, refused to sign a code of conduct of the Italian government, which would have massively restricted their scope of action in the Mediterranean.

A detailed statement of the reasons for the decision is not yet available, for which the court in Rome has up to 15 days. In principle, the decision of the Court of Cassation was not about substantive issues, but about responsibilities – in this specific case, those of the court in Trapani and, in general, those of the Italian authorities in rescue activities on the high seas in the Mediterranean. "This decision is a precedent that allows Italian investigative authorities and the judiciary to declare any search-and-rescue operations related to migration to be within their jurisdiction," Julian Koberer of Jugend Rettet said Tuesday. This could have an impact on the work of all organizations involved in sea rescue in the Mediterranean, he added.

In terms of legal options against the seizure of the Iuventa, Jugend Rettet says its only recourse now is to go to the European Court of Human Rights. If the Italian authorities drop the investigation for lack of evidence, the ship would also be released, but that seems unlikely: there is no deadline by which charges must be filed. "They can investigate as long as they want and leave the Iuventa impounded for as long as they want," Julian Koberer said. The organization wants to continue its political work, he said. Whether a return to operational business on the Mediterranean would be possible without Iuventa is currently being examined.