A Naples court has convicted the captain of an Italian commercial vessel for returning 101 migrants rescued at sea to Libya.
Judge Maria Luisa Miranda’s verdict is the first of its kind in Italy and has been well received by human rights groups.
The ship’s captain, Giuseppe Sotgiu, was convicted of charges related to the abandonment and sentenced to one year in prison.
However, the court exonerated the accused on the most serious charge – abuse of power – according to a copy of the sentence.
The United Nations refugee agency and the European Union do not view Libya as a safe port for rescued migrants.
The forced return of refugees, especially unaccompanied minors, is seen as a possible violation of their rights to protection and to seek asylum.
A previous verdict in 2012 by the European Court of Human Rights was handed down against Italy after military ships returned migrants to Tripoli in 2009.
The Naples case concerned the rescue of 101 people by an Italian oil rig supply ship in July 2018.
The vessel Asso Ventotto worked for the company Mellitah Oil and Gas, a joint venture of the Italian ENI and the Libyan National Oil Cor., On the Sabratha oil platform north of Tripoli.
The ship’s operator at the time, Naples-based Augusta Offshore, said Asso Ventotto received a call from the Libyan coast guard to respond to an inflatable boat carrying migrants near the platform.
According to Augusta, the migrants did not protest when they were transferred to a Libyan coast guard ship and brought back to Tripoli, the nearest port.
But Italian prosecutors said the ship’s captain had not contacted coastguard offices in Tripoli or Rome before setting sail and docking in Libya.
The crew of the Asso Ventotto did not identify the migrants or determine their condition and wishes, prosecutors added. Five of those rescued near the Sabratha oil rig are believed to be pregnant.
On Thursday, Sotgiu was acquitted of one charge of abuse of power but found guilty of two more counts relating to the abandonment of minors and vulnerable people. Another defendant was acquitted of all charges.
The conviction, if upheld on appeal, could have broad political implications for Italy and the EU.
Aid organizations have long denounced their continued financial support for the Libyan coast guard to patrol its borders and bring migrants attempting to reach Europe back to land.
Riccardo Noury, spokesperson for Amnesty International’s Italian office, said the conviction was important in establishing that a commercial vessel was for the first time “an accomplice in an international crime”.
“If other civilian or commercial ships do the same, they can be tried and sentenced,” Noury said.