Tunisian fishermen face 15 years' jail in Italy for saving migrants from rough seas

Seven Tunisian fishermen go on trial in Sicily today for the crime of rescuing 44 migrants from certain death in the sea. They are accused of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. If convicted, they face between one and 15 years in jail.

The men were arrested on 8 August after bringing the migrants ashore in Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost island. They were remanded in custody and remained in jail until 10 September, when five were released on bail and the two officers of the boat were put under house arrest.

On the morning of 7 August, Abdelkarim Bayoudh and his crew had dropped anchor on a shelf 30 miles south of the island of Lampedusa. They had just turned in for a few hours' sleep when they were woken by screams for help.

Coming out on deck they saw a rubber boat crammed with people wallowing in the rough sea, taking in water and on the point of sinking. Among them were two children and 11 women – two of them pregnant and one elderly and badly ill. In the crush to get aboard the fishing boat, two of the migrants went in the water. Two of the Tunisian crew dived in and rescued them.

Captain Bayoudh then headed for the nearest harbour. Their home port of Monastir was 90 miles away, Lampedusa only 30 miles. The best destination was obvious. Yet on arrival in Lampedusa, the seven Tunisians were arrested and thrown in jail. Experts say the charge of aiding illegal immigration is absurd.

The work of the criminals that run the migration racket finishes at the dock in Libya, where nearly all the crossings originate.

The true object of the trial, it is suspected, is to dissuade fishermen from doing their duty. If so, it is likely to be successful. The fact that the fishermen have spent more than a month in custody sends a clear message to others like them.

Laura Boldrini, of the UN High Commission for Refugees, contrasts the behaviour of the Tunisians with that of other, unnamed fishermen reported to her who recently beat migrants attempting to get into their boat with sticks, forcing them into the water where several drowned. No action was taken against them. "We only know the tip of the iceberg of what happens in the Mediterranean," she said. "We must rely on fishermen to rescue people in trouble – or at the very least alert the maritime authorities."

Crossing to Europe by boat is an increasingly desperate gamble. The man put in charge of the boat may never have seen the sea before. Boats are getting smaller and flimsier by the year, and may not even be equipped with enough fuel for the passage. Migrants can become the prey of pirates, or they may simply capsize and disappear.

A website called Fortress Europe, which monitors deaths and disappearances at Europe's borders, says that 491 people vanished in the Canale de Sicilia this year, up to 1 September. Of those, 103 are definitely dead; the other 388 are the ones that nobody saw disappear. The figure is the highest since Fortress Europe began counting in 1994, and already nearly 200 more than all of last year.

Until recently there was good reason to believe that if boats in trouble managed to attract the attention of passing fishermen, they stood a good chance of being rescued. But now the odds on that are worsening.

The attitude shift was signaled by Malta, which is struggling with an immigrant problem. In 2005, a boat packed with 200 migrants was reported by the Maltese military five miles off the island of Gozo. They were instructed to "monitor the boat and keep a distance away from them". Thirty of the migrants drowned before the rest were rescued by Italians. Earlier this year, too, the Italians came to the rescue when the Maltese refused to accept 27 migrants who had been clinging to tuna nets for three days.

But now it seems Italy has begun taking a similar hard line. Once they had taken the 44 migrants on board, the Tunisians radioed Lampedusa – but when they were 12 miles out, at the limit of Italian territorial waters, a Coast Guard vessel approached and told them to turn back.

Tana de Zulueta, a Green Party MP who interviewed the captain of the boat, said: "It seems the Italian Interior Ministry had issued a new instruction that day saying don't bring people in."

The Tunisian captain said he ignored the order because of the children and pregnant women on board, and the fact that, ravenously hungry, they had already eaten and drunk everything on the ship. "I'm happy about what I did," he told Ms de Zulueta. "If I hadn't done it they would have died."

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