Judge frees crew of ship that saved migrants  

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The Independent Online

Three men in charge of a ship that rescued 37 Africans from a dinghy sinking off Sicily were ordered to be released by an Italian judge yesterday when they appeared before him accused of promoting illegal immigration. It was not immediately clear whether charges against them would be dropped.

Three men in charge of a ship that rescued 37 Africans from a dinghy sinking off Sicily were ordered to be released by an Italian judge yesterday when they appeared before him accused of promoting illegal immigration. It was not immediately clear whether charges against them would be dropped.

Elias Bierdel, head of Cap Anamur, a team of German volunteers that has rescued refugees from the sea since 1979, appeared in court in Agrigento with the ship's German captain, Stefan Schmidt, and his Russian first officer, Vladimir Dhchkevitch.

A small crowd gathered outside the court house to applaud them, including Captain Schmidt's son Felix, who had travelled from Germany. "I want to see him and tell him I'm proud of him," he said.

The saga of Cap Anamur began on 20 June. The ship was south of Sicily when crew members spotted a rubber dinghy in difficulties, with dozens of Africans on board. "We went alongside," Elias Bierdel told German radio, "and saw that this boat was in no way seaworthy.

"The motor had failed, and one of the air chambers was already half-empty. These were people in a life-threatening situation. After signalling wildly, they were very pleased to be able to come aboard. Some were suffering from hypothermia."

Ten days later, on 1 July, Cap Anamur was off the southern Sicilian port of Empedocle and the ship had already been given permission to dock when at 9am it was abruptly withdrawn. "What we experienced in the hours afterwards," he said, "was something like a military confrontation. There were cannon boats, the coastguard, police, there were helicopters."

Cap Anamur and its 37 Africans found themselves in the middle of a diplomatic stand-off, with Italy attempting to pass the buck either to Malta (to which Cap Anamur had travelled after rescuing the Africans) or to Germany (which was where the Africans said they wanted political asylum).

Neither country was willing to concede, however. Cap Anamur was left a few miles off the Italian coast with no country willing to take her in.

As days became weeks, the tension increased. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees protested at the Italian government's attitude, as did the Vatican. Finally on Monday morning, after Captain Schmidt reported his passengers threatening to throw themselves overboard, permission was given to land.

The Africans, who appear to come from west Africa, were disembarked and processed at a reception centre. The three Europeans in charge were then induced to leave the boat, supposedly for negotiations -- but once on land they were immediately arrested and accused of promoting illegal immigration.

They were reportedly separated and locked up in small cells, sharing them with robbers and murderers. They were not allowed to wash or change their clothes, watch television or read newspapers.

Their treatment provoked angry reactions in Germany, where Cap Anamur is an admired aid organisation with a reputation comparable to Greenpeace. German development minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul said: "It is unacceptable that Elias Bierdel should be punished because he wanted to help people who chanced on great hardship."

Cap Anamur has been hauling desperate people out of the sea for 25 years. When the floods of boat people fleeing Vietnam's Communist regime, a group of Germans chartered the freighter to rescue them from storms and pirates. The organisation says it has rescued 10,375 people from the sea.

The latest incident has challenged Italy's conscience. "And they talk about our Christian roots" was one headline this week. "The ferocious face of Italy" was another. This week, too, Italy's Constitutional Court denounced as unconstitutional key provisions of a harsh new anti-immigrant law.

Elias Bierdel's vision of Cap Anamur's work is simple. "According to official numbers," he said, "more than 5,000 people have lost their lives in the Mediterranean. It has become a kind of floating cemetery. That situation is truly contemptible.

"As a humanitarian organisation we have a boat, we try to save human lives and we find it very strange that we are confronted by European cannon ships which attempt to hinder us from doing so."

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