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Italy’s top court rules against sending sea migrants back to Libya, charities applaud verdict

Italy’s highest appeals court has delivered a landmark ruling, deeming the practice of returning sea migrants to Libya unlawful, a decision celebrated by charitable organisations and human rights advocates.

The Court of Cassation affirmed the conviction of the captain of an Italian towboat, Asso 28, who, in 2018, rescued 101 migrants from a rubber dinghy and forcibly repatriated them to Libya. The rescue operation unfolded in international waters approximately 105 km off the coast of Libya, encompassing pregnant women and children among the rescued migrants, the court disclosed.

The captain, whose identity remains undisclosed for privacy considerations, received a one-year prison sentence for offences including abandoning minors or incapacitated persons, as well as arbitrary disembarkation and abandonment of individuals. However, under the Italian legal system, sentences of less than four years typically do not result in incarceration.

This decisive verdict, which affirms the rulings of two lower courts, was officially documented on February 1 but gained public attention through Italian media channels over the weekend, with Reuters acquiring a copy of the ruling on Sunday.


In recent years, Italy and other European nations have adopted stricter immigration policies, influenced by the rise of right-wing parties advocating stringent controls on sea arrivals from North Africa. Notably, the Libya to Italy migration route remains one of the most utilised pathways for sea migration.

Echoing sentiments shared by many humanitarian groups, the Mediterranea Saving Humans migrant rescue organisation asserted, “Now there is also a judicial precedent that confirms what we have been saying for years: Libya is not a safe country.”

Amnesty International’s Italian division also commended the court’s decision while condemning the government’s collaboration with Libyan authorities on migration issues. The organisation emphasised that forcibly repatriating individuals to Libya and cooperating with the Libyan coast guard contravenes the fundamental obligation to transport rescued individuals to a secure location.

Under international humanitarian law, migrants cannot be involuntarily returned to regions where they face the risk of severe mistreatment, with widespread reports of migrant abuse extensively documented in Libya.


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