Italian court drops charges against migrant rescue ship crews and ends long-running legal battle

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ROME (AP) — An Italian court on Friday dismissed a long-running case against the crew of three humanitarian organizations, dropping charges accusing them of collaborating with smugglers as they helped rescue thousands of migrants at sea.

The judges in the Sicilian city of Trapani decided not to proceed to trial against 10 crew members involved in the so-called Iuventa case, named after the rescue vessel operated by German nonprofit Jugend Rettet.

Staff members from Jugend Rettet, Save The Children and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) were fully acquitted from all charges of aiding and abetting illegal immigration.

Italian prosecutors started the case in 2017, accusing the crew members of serving as “taxis” for migrants rather than rescuing them. The rescue teams were alleged to have coordinated their search-and-rescue actions with human traffickers off Libya, returning dinghies and boats to smugglers to be reused, while rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean whose lives were not in real danger.

Italy’s Interior Mnistry had joined the lawsuit as plaintiff.

The court on Friday followed the surprise recommendation by prosecutors in February to dismiss all charges in the case, which the organizations slammed for criminalizing their activity in the Mediterranean.

More than 20 people had been involved in the inquiry over the years, including boat captains, heads of mission and legal representatives, facing charges carrying sentences of up to 20 years.

“The truth has been recognized,” Save the Children said after the ruling.

MSF stressed in a statement they had faced “seven years of false accusations, defamatory statements, and a blatant criminalisation campaign towards organisations performing search and rescue operations at sea.”

Italian authorities began to focus on the issue in 2016, as Rome’s then centre-left government was struggling to manage a double-digit increase in the number of migrants reaching the country’s coasts in a desperate attempt to reach Europe.

The current far-right government led by Premier Giorgia Meloni has further stiffened Rome’s tough stance against migrant rescues in the Mediterranean, limiting ships to one sea rescue at a time, and forcing them to dock at an assigned port — rules the charities say are severely hitting rescues.

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