A captain of a search-and-rescue ship potentially facing up to 20 years in jail in connection with her role in saving 6,000 people from drowning in the Mediterranean has accused the EU of letting people die and the Italian authorities of “criminalising solidarity”.
Pia Klemp, 35, who skippered the Iuventa, a vessel run by an NGO, stands accused with nine others of aiding and abetting illegal migration in relation to their role in seeking to rescue people in danger after fleeing the Libyan coast for Europe.
The evidence publicly produced by the Italian authorities for their claims that the rescuers collaborated with people smugglers was found wanting by academics at Goldsmith University last year. The Iuventa was seized two years ago and charges are yet to be laid. Klemp, from Bonn in Germany, said she and her colleagues were preparing for a long, drawn out legal battle after recently being advised that prosectors were not going to drop the case and that it was likely to go to trial.
Lawyers for the so-called Iuventa 10 have advised that the charges being considered carry a prison term of up to 20 years or a €15,000 fine for each person illegally brought to Italy.
Matteo Salvini, the far-right interior minister, called last year for Klemp to be arrested for her role in saving migrants and refugees and landing them on island of Lampedusa, bypassing the Italian government’s closure of ports.
Speaking to the Guardian ahead of a summer of fundraising to cover legal costs likely to be reach €500,000, Klemp said the rescuers were being targeted as part of a wider attempt to “stigmatise refugees”.
“There is no way I am going to prison for saving people in distress,” Klemp said. “It is the most ridiculous thing on so may different levels. And I will never accept anything else but acquittal.”
The Iuventa, a former fishing vessel, is believed to have saved 14,000 people in total during its time on the seas. Its crews worked closely with the Italian marine coordination centre for search and rescue. They would find distressed smuggler vessels and pass those saved on to European military ships or the Italian coastguard.
Klemp skippered the boat on two missions in the summer of 2017, when on one day alone up to 3,800 people on smuggler boats in distress were saved.
The Italian government railed against the large numbers of people being rescued and returned to their ports, and the lack of support from the EU’s other 27 member states. A deal was agreed with the Libyan coastguard, a group of militia, in which the EU would fund their operations to find and return those in the Mediterranean to Libya.
Amid the political change, in August 2017 the Iuventa was seized at the port of Lampedusa and phones and computers onboard were taken. It later transpired that the crew had been bugged and that informants had been placed on other rescue ships.
It was claimed in official documents relating to the seizure that there was evidence that the rescuers had collaborated with smugglers to get their boats sent back to Libya after rescues, an allegation that has been strenuously denied.
Klemp, who worked in marine conservation before joining the crew of the Iuventa, continued to be involved in rescue operations in a second boat until June last year when she was informed by lawyers that she risked pre-trial detention if found in Italian waters.
Klemp said her experience on the Mediterranean made her determined to highlight the torment of those fleeing Libya and the culpability of the EU and the Italian government.
She said: “We had a rescue where we could only try to bring a two-year-old boy back to life – we didn’t manage to. The Libyan coastguard had intercepted the refugees and did everything they could to forcibly take them back to Libya. They damaged the refugee boats and a lot of people were left in water.
“Italian and French warships did not assist with the rescue. Some 40 people got taken back to Libya, 40 drowned and we had 60 on our ship including this little boy who we had to keep in our freezer for several days.
“Europe didn’t give us a port of safety so we had to bob up and down in international waters for several days with that boy in the freezer, with his mother onboard, and you were really wondering what you are going to tell that woman whose child is in your freezer about the Nobel peace prize-winning European Union.”
On Wednesday this week, Libyan authorities allocated Tripoli as a safe port for the disembarkment of 52 people rescued by Sea-Watch, an NGO. Sea-Watch declined the offer and headed to Lampedusa with the rescued onboard.
“If the illegal NGO ship disobeys, keeping the lives of the immigrants at risk, they will answer for it fully,’’ said Salvini, who has repeatedly declared Italian waters closed to NGO rescue vessels.