'One of the Darkest Moments in European History'

Four years ago, almost 300 people - including 60 children - drowned when their boat capsized off Lampedusa. Now a father and mother who lost their four daughters in the tragedy seek justice before the Italian courts.

On 11 October 2013, 268 people drowned in the Mediterranean 60 miles off the small Italian island of Lampedusa. Among the dead were 60 children. The victims were mostly Syrians fleeing from war to claim asylum in Europe.

But instead of coming to the rescue after a Syrian doctor's frantic SOS calls to the Italian Coast Guard, Italian and Maltese maritime authorities argued over who was responsible for dealing with the emergency. As more and more water rushed into the fishing boat, which held more than 400 people, the Italian Navy ship Libra idled close by, awaiting clear orders from Rome to intervene.

The Libra finally did come to the rescue, but only after the fishing boat had capsized and hundreds had drowned.

On the fourth anniversary of the shipwreck, on 11 October 2017, a trial started at the Rome Criminal Court. Seven officers of the Navy and Coast Guard are charged with failure to rescue and manslaughter.

Arturo Salerni, a famous Italian lawyer, represents a married couple from Syria who lost their four little daughters in the shipwreck. Liberties seized the opportunity to interview Salerni ahead of the 69th International Human Rights Day on 10 December. To recall: Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries.

Liberties: Mr. Salerni, what do you fight for at the trial?

Arturo Salerni: I fight for the prosecution of those responsible and for a statement of their guilt and criminal liability for the 286 people who died because of their hit-and-run tactics. Our work has been further complicated by a motion from the Office of the Prosecutor of Rome to dismiss the case, despite a judge in Agrigento previously refusing to do so.

Where and how do the parents you defend live today?

Mr. Wahid and his wife now live as refugees in Switzerland. As I promised the couple to be discreet about their personal life, I cannot give out more details.

Catia Pellegrino, the commander of the Navy ship Libra, which was called to rescue the migrant boat, acted according to international maritime law. Moreover, the migrant boat was in Malta’s Search and Rescue Area. Why do these facts not absolve her and her commanders of a crime?

Italian law and the international conventions on maritime law establish, as a priority above any other objective, to take care of the lives of those who are in the sea. With regard to the position of Catia Pellegrino, the judges ordered a supplementary investigation in order to clarify if, as we have claimed, she was informed of the real situation and grave danger of the small boat near Lampedusa.

Malta says that it could not cope with the huge size of its Search and Rescue Area. Nevertheless, what’s Malta’s responsibility in all this?

Malta has for years been the formal coordinator of a huge Search and Rescue Area, but Italy has always carried on rescue operations even so. In any case, the Italian operators are also accused of not giving the correct information to Malta regarding the position of the Italian Navy vessel, which was the nearest ship to the migrants’ boat – it was 19 miles away, or about one hour.

Arturo Salerni, a famous lawyer in Italy, represents a married couple from Syria that lost their four little daughters in the shipwreck.

From October 2013 to October 2014, the Italian government led Mare Nostrum, a sea rescue operation that saved about 150,000 migrants. Then, Mare Nostrum was ended and the EU Frontex's Operation Triton, as well as private boats from groups like Doctors without Borders, saved people from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. This summer, these rescue organisations were accused of being the main “pull factor” for the rising number of migrant boats, and they were also accused of collaborating with the smugglers. What’s your view on these accusations?

Talking about a “pull factor” is the opposite persepective to how one should view this situation. The reality is that the boats of private NGOs have helped save thousands of lives following the termination of operations like Mare Nostrum. According to a great number of studies, ending Mare Nostrum has led to many deaths, and private boats were the only existing remedy. The ones who should be charged aren’t NGO activists, but those who have the power to intervene and refuse to use it. Traffickers have easy work when effective rescue operations and humanitarian corridors are not in place. Instead of implementing these things, EU governments sign agreements with dictators who deny basic human rights to migrants in order to stop departures. This doesn’t help the situation at all.

These days in continental European countries like Germany, one can hear rather little in most media about the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean. Has the number of people drowning in the sea decreased?

At the moment, international agreements tend to stop those who try to escape to Europe. For this reason, it has become very difficult to quantify the number of people who died in camps in Libya or during their escape, but the daily tragedies have not stopped in any case.

In your view, who has to take responsibility to stop tragedies like the shipwreck of 11 October 2013?

The first duty of a democratic government should be to protect the right to life, especially when there are so many deadly episodes that they become predictable. Those with the power to stop these tragedies but choose not to live with a huge responsibility on their shoulders.

In your eyes, what’s the state of humanity in Europe as 2017 comes to a close?

We are certainly in one of the darkest moments of European history since World War II.

Questions by Cora Pfafferott