How Italy built Libya’s maritime forces


How Italy built Libya’s maritime forces

December 22, 2022

Lorenzo Bagnoli
Fabio Papetti

Between January 1st and late September 2022, over 16,600 migrants were disembarked back on Libyan shores by the country’s maritime forces. There were more than 160 “operations”, a sharp increase from the previous year. The term “operation”, in this context, can mean that boats carrying groups of migrants were either rescued or intercepted. The outcome is the same in either case: the passengers were returned to detention centres in Libya, waiting to buy their own freedom and try their luck at fleeing the country one more time. According to a UNHCR report, as of October 24th, out of 43,000 asylum seekers and refugees, 3,500 were being detained in Libya’s official prisons.

These figures point to an increase in the activities of the Libyan maritime forces. The country could never have achieved such “results” without contributions from Italy and other European countries. Italy alone has supplied at least 12 ships, as well as managing the contracts for their maintenance and the supply of specific equipment. In addition, it organises courses for crew training and leads the project to create a maritime rescue coordination centre (MRCC). These are the bricks upon which Italy has built the Great Mediterranean Wall of external borders in Libya, originating in the Memorandum of Understanding between the Italian and Libyan governments, which came into effect in February 2017, and will be automatically renewed for a three-year period on November, 2nd. The agreement drew the boundaries of the cooperation for border control in Libya.

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The Big Wall Project

Beginning this year, IrpiMedia will collaborate with ActionAid on investigations into The Big Wall; an observatory on the outsourcing of funds to manage migrant flows to Italy. Our work will also draw on requests for access to records by the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI).

The photographs for this article were taken by Sara Creta, who has been covering and reporting on migrants for many years.

Last year, ActionAid launched The Big Wall, an observer on the containment policies for migration flows that Italy has put in place since 2015. The project has revealed that Italy has committed to spending almost one billion euro to push the borders further south, in an effort to discourage departures from countries of origin and make migration less conspicuous to public opinion in Europe.

A Libyan Coast Guard vessel during a mission in the Central Mediterranean Sea – Photo: Sara Creta
Migrants aboard a Libyan Coast Guard vessel after being taken during a mission in the Central Mediterranean Sea – Photo: Sara Creta
A view of a detention center in Tajoura, Libya. According to the UN, a bomb dropped here in July 2019 by a foreign plane supporting Khalifa Haftar’s forces killed 53 people and wounded 130 – Photo: Sara Creta

This year, IrpiMedia and ActionAid looked into the funding of the Wall in the Central Mediterranean, the route followed by migrants to reach Italy from Libya – the subject of this investigation – and Tunisia, which will be covered in the next instalment. The main goal, according to records, is to stabilise the North African countries in order to curb the flow of migrants to Italy by striking migration at the root. Both countries, however, are obviously far from stable, and financial aids have fuelled internal conflicts rather than pacified them. The logic of the Great Wall leaves Italy and its European partners at the mercy of domestic policies in North African countries over management of Europe’s borders.

Brick by brick

Sources of funding come from Italy as well as the EU. Funds are not issued by a single entity, which results in money being handled by several contracting authorities: the Police, the Coast Guard, the Navy, and Invitalia, a government agency that oversees, among other things, the implementation of EU projects. Very few of these issue their calls for tender in public form, and in any case, the funding process is not transparent. For years, several NGOs have been asking them to share their data, in the light of the repeated violations of human rights suffered by migrants and the hundreds of deaths at sea. The lack of transparency has actual political consequences, too: without complete data, it is impossible to determine whether these programmes have achieved their goals. Overall, they have muddled through, well below what was promised and expected.

While formally a sovereign state, Libya has seen its border control, its army and its territorial integrity in tatters. «Libyan armed groups and their leaders took over the role once held by venal political elites and entrepreneurs, becoming instrumental for any development in the country», Libya advisor at DCAF Emadeddin Badi wrote in an article published by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) on July, 8th.

A conflict with no solution in sight
There are two governments vying for power in Libya: one in Tripoli, recognised by the United Nations, and one in Tobruk, recognised by the Libyan Parliament. The former is led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the latter by Fathi Bashgagha. In August, armed groups loyal to the rival prime ministers battled across the capital once again. Since June, Bashgagha had been calling for his UN-backed opponent to step down. Dbeibah was expected to hold the office until elections in December 2021, which were then postponed.

The instability has also affected migrants: together with the economic crisis in Tunisia, it was among the main push factors behind the departures last summer. A little over a year ago, some of them started a movement under the name Refugees in Libya, speaking out against repression and arbitrary detention at the hands of Libyan authorities. The organisation called for an end to the Italy – Libya Memorandum of Understanding. With help from an international network of activists, the group has launched a blog.

Libya’s maritime forces are just as fragmented, and tainted by armed groups with different allegiances. Some of these answer to warlords, mostly with a personal loyalty to Dbeibah. Then there are the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) and the General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS), which fall under the scope of the defence and interior ministry, respectively. The difference is that the former are “private” forces, answering directly to the president’s office, while the latter are “official” forces, subject to the chains of command of their respective ministries. However, the official forces include militias such as the al-Nasr brigade, which the UN lists as a human trafficking and fuel smuggling organisation.

The brigade also serves as the LCG in Zawiya, Western Libya. They are cops and criminals at the same time, with an interest in Italian contracts to consolidate their power at sea. For years, all these maritime forces have used the promise of rescuing migrants at sea as a bargaining chip.

Since the beginning of the cooperation five years ago, migrants are still fleeing Libya and drowning in the Mediterranean: the death rate in 2021 was 4.7%, compared to 2.6% in 2017. This figure indicates the percentage of people who drowned or went missing from the total number of departures for that year. The mortality rate peaked in 2019, when one out of ten migrants departing by boat drowned or went missing.

Where and how does money flow?

Perennial instability in Libya was given as the main cause of the delays in securing control of the country’s land and maritime borders. The Support to Integrated Border Management and Migration Management in Libya (SIBMMIL) programme was scheduled to wrap up as early as 2020, but some of the expected results were seen only in 2022. Its main goals are to strengthen the Libyan authorities’ capacity for rescue at sea as well as for maritime border control. According to Italy’s General Accounting Department, between 2017 and 2022 the country spent 27.2 million euro in EU funds allocated to this programme. The overall budget for SIBMMIL was 44.5 million, of which Italy contributed about two. The programme’s implementing body is the Italian Ministry of the Interior, one of the cornerstones of The Big Wall.

SIBMMIL for land borders: the agreement with the IOM

Among the beneficiaries of the fund is the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM), working to protect migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. It is one of the very few organisations that have gained access – albeit with great difficulty – to Libya’s detention centres.
The IOM received 12 of the 44 million euros allocated to the SIBMMIL programme, following a three-party agreement with the European Commission and the Italian Ministry of the Interior. IOM officials explained that such agreements are not new. Under the convention with the Ministry, obtained through a request by the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), the IOM would be providing mostly medical assistance to the migrants from the Southern desert, where border control is still far from being strengthened.

Assistance and protection are two of the IOM’s main missions, but more is expected from the UN agency, including the «vetting of Libyan officials participating in training activities, in order to exclude individuals who have committed human rights violations and abuses and therefore cannot be held reliable nor accountable for promoting and applying international standards». It seems an attempt to avoid another controversy, like the one that followed Avvenire’s discovery in 2019 that among the trained officials was alleged migrant trafficker and oil smuggler Abdel Rahman al-Milad, also known as Al-Bija.

However, ASGI was denied access to the documents detailing the IOM-Ministry agreement, as they are part of a «broader programme of international police cooperation with Libya», and therefore treated as classified foreign policy operations.

Of the 27.2 million euro that Italy spent on Libya, only about 20 million – less than four-fifths – could be tracked, between completed contracts and ongoing allocations. The main items of expenditure were 8.3 million in new marine vehicles (20 speedboats of various lengths); 3.4 in land vehicles (30 off-road vehicles, 14 ambulances, 10 minibuses); 5.7 in spare parts and maintenance of naval assets; 1 million in training activities, and one million in 14 containers.

Migrants wait in overcrowded conditions aboard a Libyan Coast Guard vessel in the Abu Sita naval base after being intercepted in the Central Mediterranean Sea – Photo: Sara Creta

The call for tender also includes the maritime rescue coordination centre among the mobile units. A MRCC plays a fundamental role not only in making rescue operations more effective, but also to legitimise such operations in terms of international law, without which they might be viewed as mere “pushback by proxy” from Italy.

With this programme, then, the European Union, at the urging of Italy, hopes to provide Libya with a crucial tool to independently manage the rescue of migrants at sea. The former defence minister Lorenzo Guerini spoke about the mission on July 7th, 2021, before the joint Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees. Guerini described the two directions pursued by the Italian armed forces in Libya: an increased involvement of the EU mission IRINI (patrolling the waters off the Libyan coast) in the training and monitoring of Libya’s maritime authorities, and the «development of an independent command and control of its assets by the Libyan navy»; in other words, the management of patrolling, search and rescue operations. Guerini was very clear on this point: «As of July 3rd, 2020, the activities have been carried out by the Libyan navy in complete autonomy, with their own land infrastructures and with no involvement from Italian defence personnel».

Information from Libya, however, tells a different story. A source that was very close to the coordination room of rescue operations in Tripoli until 2021, speaking anonymously as they were not at liberty to discuss the matter in interviews, claims that the Libyan coast guard officials are actually informed via email mostly by Italy (and to a much lesser degree, Spain and Malta), whenever a rescue operation must be carried out. According to the source, the Italian navy ship in the area, officially deployed on a «technical support» mission, is actually involved in the transmission of emails to the Libyans.

The mystery surrounding the role of the Italians in Tripoli compounds the embarrassment over the SIBMMIL programme: given all the funding, the MRCC should be fully operational, but the nature of the Libyan partners – more militia than official state apparatus – means that full control over the implementation of the programme is impossible.

Support to the GACS and the Coast Guard

Both the GACS and the LCG have «limited operational capacities», according to the EUBAM Libya Strategic Review 2021, a confidential document. The GACS is a police force that, until 2019, had a mandate to operate strictly within Libyan territorial waters. In 2021, it participated in 14 rescue operations at sea, and was part of an ongoing joint pilot project with Frontex and the Italian Ministry of Interior with the purpose of increasing GACS operational capacity to conduct search and rescue operations.

The goal is to include it in a monitoring system of sea borders wherein the GACS can exchange information with other European border police forces. This is not limited to immigration: the GACS is also expected to help intercept fishing vessels and cargo ships carrying contraband or weapons or fishing without a permit. Italy has supplied the GACS, and provided maintenance for a total of 7 patrol boats from 28 to 35 metres, plus another 20 vessels from 9 to 12 metres, to the tune of more than 9 million euros.

A GACS promotional video released on YouTube on June 8th shows the patrol boats supplied by Italy, including their interiors: the logos of Cantiere Navale Vittoria, the monitors, the electronic compasses, the Furuno satellite compasses, the navigation systems. Everything has been supplied to Libya through contracts issued by Italy’s Police and Guardia di Finanza. In the video, GACS director Al-Bashir Bannour says: «We thank our Italian partners for supporting us over the years with construction, supplying of replacement parts, maintenance and the training of workers».

The video makes Europe’s dependence on the Libyan maritime forces extremely clear: «According to official estimates, the number of migrants have doubled», the narrator says, «and the GACS does not have the strength to curb the influx, but it can fight the human traffickers». Later, the narrator explains that a lack of vessels «limits the effectiveness of the coastal security forces», adding: «The Ministry of Interior hopes that these new boats will bolster the capacity of crews», thanks to «new instruments» and «propulsion systems to assist ships on the high seas».

The LCG, on the other hand, is the maritime force that lies within the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence, together with the Navy. According to the report on LCG and Navy capability monitoring from Operation IRINI (the touchpoint for both training and the exchange of information among military), the LCG and the Navy have 26 vessels, 17 of which were supplied or repaired by Italy. The overall expenditure from 2018 until now, including funds to be used over 2022, is over 3 million euro. The patrol boats Ubari, Ras Al Jadar, and Sabratha, part of the Libyan fleet, have been involved in stand-offs with NGOs or incidents of violence on migrants.

What we know about the MRCC so far

On December 21st, 2021, the Italian Navy ship San Giorgio docked at Abu Sitta, the military base of the Libyan Navy, to deliver ten containers. The habitable mobile units are needed for the rescue coordination centre and a sort of encampment. While awaiting a more suitable location, the structure will be a mobile one, located inside one of the containers. The European Union’s ultimate goal is to fund 2 permanent MRCCs: one in Libya and another in Tunisia, a country that has not yet declared the borders of its SAR zone to the international community.

According to the source in Libya, the container with the equipment for the Libyan coordination centre has been sitting in the trading port for some time. Italy has already supplied a few computers and an antenna, but part of the material has not arrived yet. Therefore, the source reports, operations are currently being managed out of an apartment in a historic building, not far from Martyrs’ Square in central Tripoli.

Vessels belonging to the General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS) docked at the port of Tripoli, Libya – Photo: Sara Creta
A guard within the detention center of Shara Zawya in Tripoli, Libya – Photo: Sara Creta
A Libyan Coast Guard officer aboard the vessel Fezzen – Photo: Sara Creta

The fact that the MRCC in the container is still unused is likely due to intense competition between the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard (both under Tripoli’s defence ministry) over the management of rescue operations and, presumably, over EU funds and supplies. The LCG is less interested in the mobile operation room than in moving the base to Tajoura, located 15 kilometres out of Tripoli and formerly the site of a coordination centre, in a bid to gain more independence from the Navy.

Along with the containers, Abu Sitta has also received radio and radar equipment supplied by Italy’s Gem Elettronica srl and Elman srl, part of the MRCC package. All of the Italian suppliers declined to comment following our requests for clarification on the implementation of the MRCC. The technical dossier states that the equipment can be connected with a sensor located in the Abu Sitta base. Gem Elettronica, 30% of which is owned by Leonardo spa, has been involved in the supply of radar for Tripoli’s land borders since 2013.

In May 2021, Elman srl released a statement on its website announcing it would participate in the Libyan MRCC project. The Italian Navy only confirmed that they took part in the SIBMMIL programme for the creation of the MRCC, but did not provide further information on the installation of the containers.

The other wall: lack of transparency in EU funding

While doing research on the MRCC, IrpiMedia repeatedly requested access to information concerning its development. Few answers were given, often incomplete ones, citing «security reasons». This was especially true of EU funds for border outsourcing in Africa, which are «beyond the control of the European Parliament», according to MEP Özlem Demirel and her assistant Ota Jaksch. The European Parliament receives an annual report, a file that can be easily found by searching online, but the information it contains is not specific to each operation or project. «The European Commission establishes the programmes of the fund without having a transparent prior discussion or consultation of the respective EP committees before the decision is made», Jaksch added. «The EUTF follows the interests of the individual member States and their goals, and this has been like this since the beginning.»

The only way that MEPs can request further information from the Commission and the Council are written questions, but these «cannot exceed 200 words in total and may not have more than three questions. We already have to know something so that we can try to ask very concrete questions in order to possibly get sufficient replies», Jaksch and Demirel concluded.

No rhyme or reason

There is a recurring pattern in the cooperation between European countries and countries ruled by authoritarian regimes or weak governments. There is often a raison d’état that leads parties to enter into agreements even though it is unclear who the counterparties are and what their goals might be. Funding and cooperation projects are in the service of an unspecified agenda. So far, this strategy has not served Libya well: its maritime forces might be more efficient, yet the context in which they operate is highly unstable. Furthermore, this analysis does not take rule of law into account: the very same officials who were trained by Europe have been accused of human trafficking and smuggling, and there is no certainty that an actual chain of command even exists between the eastern and western regions of the country, as a unitary state would require.

Italy has attempted to guide the political process in Libya as the country is at the heart of the «enlarged Mediterranean», a geo-political space that Giorgia Meloni herself is invested in (as shown in her speech before the Chamber of Deputies, when she spoke about «our strategic role in the Mediterranean»). Yet in the past, when discussing the direct consequences of European missions on migrant flows, some ally states had voiced their reservations over the effectiveness of European initiatives led by Italy. In 2017, when Britain was still part of the European Union, one Lords Select Committee produced a report that described Operation Sophia (which was followed by Operation IRINI in 2020) as «a failed mission».

Two Italian Navy men at the naval base of Abu Sita in Tripoli, Libya – Photo: Sara Creta

The document noted that, contrary to Britain’s expectations, tackling irregular migration was not included in the mandate of the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Libya. It went on to say that «creating a culture in the Libyan coastguard that respects the human rights of migrants is likely to be a major challenge». This is as true today as it was then: in late march 2022, Germany announced it would no longer participate in the training of Libyan officials, who had demonstrated «repeated unacceptable behaviour» towards refugees, migrants and NGOs.

According to Mark Micallef, director of the North Africa and Sahel Observatory at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GITOC), Libya’s forces should not be regarded as a unified entity. On the contrary, they are constantly opposing each other, and only a part of them is working to improve their search and rescue capabilities. Yet the expenditure to outsource border control in Libya continues unabated.


On November 8th, answering on behalf of the European Commission to a written question by Özlem Demirel, Vice-Commissioner Joseph Borrell admitted that «the European External Action Service (EEAS) is not in the position to provide information about the extent to which the GMDSS is used by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres as the MRCC is not operational yet», confirming what was told to IrpiMedia by the Libyan source.

On December 8th, The Libya Update leaked a document issued by the Justice Ministry of Government of National Unity, requesting that the Libyan Foreign Ministry remove Abdel Rahman Milad’s (known as Al-Bija) from their international sanctions list. Al-Bija is among the top officials of the LCG in Zawiya, trained and equipped by the Italians. «In October of this year, the Tripoli-based government honored Milad as he received a “letter of recognition and appreciation” directly from Fathallah Al-Zinni, who currently serves as minister of youth in Dbeibeh’s cabinet», The Libya Update adds.



Lorenzo Bagnoli
Fabio Papetti

With the contribution of

Antonella Mautone

Translation from Italian by

Francesco Graziosi

In partnership with


Foto di copertina

A Libyan Coast Guard officer aboard the vessel Fezzen
(Sara Creta)

Inside Italy’s show trial against Libyan “boat drivers”


Inside Italy’s show trial against Libyan “boat drivers”

July 7, 2021

Lorenzo D’Agostino

On the 15th of August 2015, 49 people died of asphyxia below the deck of an overcrowded wooden dinghy as they tried to flee Libya. Because of this incident, eight people, the alleged “crew” of the dinghy, were put on trial and convicted in Italy for people smuggling and murder. The case against five of them will be heard by Italy’s high court on Friday 2 July 2021.

The Libyan nationals, Jomaa Laamami Tarek, Abdelkarim Alla F. Hamad, Abd Al Monssif Abd Arahman, Moroccan citizen, Beddat Isham and Jarkess Mohannad, from Syria, on appeal, were sentenced to 30 years. Assayd Mohamed, from Libya, Couchane Mohamed Ali, from Tunisia, and Said Mustapha, from Morocco, received 20 year terms after their lawyers negotiated a deal to shorten their sentence.

Five of these men were younger than 20 when, on the basis of witness statements from nine of the 313 survivors of the sea crossing, they were arrested upon their arrival in Italy on the night of 17 August 2015.

These convictions, and the police investigations, were based on the groundless assumption that a crew responsible for the deaths was hiding among the passengers of the dinghy. These were said to be a group of ruthless traffickers who were a part of the Libyan organisations that smuggle people across the Mediterranean Sea.

The trial was based on unproven hypotheses, counterfeit police reports, and leading questioning of traumatised witnesses. This was not an isolated miscarriage of justice, but, as we are able to reveal through an analysis of police reports, handbooks used by law enforcement, and the minutes of private meetings among the highest echelons of the Italian judiciary, a tactic which is routinely used in migrant smuggling cases.

It is a method devised by Italy’s Antimafia Directorate and prosecutors [link to my Intercept story here?] that allowed the state to hold a convenient scapegoat responsible for the deaths in the Mediterranean.
The manual for investigations on the high seas

Since 2013 there has been an attempt to standardize the approach to combat human trafficking, with the prosecutor’s office in Catania (led at the time by prosecutor Giovanni Salvi) leading the experiment. The guidelines adopted by the National Anti-Mafia Directorate (DNA) in October that year foresaw sending out “investigative teams on the high seas”, i.e. in international waters. This constitutes “a new and unexplored judicial path … a synergistic system of new national and international coinage that speaks of the high professionalism of the Catanese DDA and its Chief,” according to the report of the DNA of that year.

Indeed, the method introduced by Salvi quickly caught on in a Europe increasingly concerned about boat landings. Today it is officially adopted by the EU’s patrolling missions, such as EUNAVFOR MED – managed by the Navies – and Themis – coordinated by Frontex, the European Border Patrol Agency, together with Italy.

In the case of the mid-August shipwreck, the attempts to identify the crew of the boat started in the first few hours following the 2015 Search and Rescue (SAR) Operation 1046 coordinated by the Capitaneria di Porto (MRCC) in Rome. The 313 survivors of the shipwreck were rescued by the Italian Navy patrol boat, Cigala Fulgosi in the morning, but the captain Massimo Tozzi did not have a refrigerated container on board where he could have kept the 49 found bodies. He therefore requested the help of a ship of the European Union border agency, Frontex, the Norwegian tug boat Siem Pilot, to which the survivors were also transferred.

After the search for the dead bodies had been concluded, a third military ship, the German OPV Werra, transferred to the Siem Pilot another 103 persons who had been rescued just a few hours before. The Frontex tug boat was then ordered to head towards the port of Catania. At 6:00 am on the morning of the 17th, when the Siem Pilot was already off the coast of Syracuse, five officers of the Catania Police and Guardia di Finanza who specialise in the fight against organized crime were sent on board to interrogate the shipwrecked people.

This experimental approach is supposed to allow the directorate to gather valuable information to dismantle organizations dedicated to smuggling and trafficking in persons ahead of the criminal investigations. Following this new method of inquiry, in practice, the job of the agents on board the rescue ships was to select, among the shipwrecked people themselves, the suspected “crew members” belonging to the criminal organization.

For this reason, Frontex agents immediately opened a “crime scene investigation”, even collecting swabs from the boat’s bridge for possible DNA testing, which were then handed over to the Italian police. But they were never analyzed: in order to find the smugglers, the agents resorted to quicker methods.

As a matter of fact, they applied the guidelines of the EUNAVFORMED mission whose title in Italian is “Profiles of Vulnerable Persons & Smugglers/Traffickers”. According to the manual, the smugglers will “try to disguise themselves among the migrants when the boat is intercepted”. In order to avoid being deceived by the smugglers, the manual suggests that agents “interrogate women with underage children first”.

This investigative technique – relying on behavioral or physical indicators to filter potential suspects – is called “profiling.” EUNAVFORMED’s manual says it should only be used by agents trained in the subject and warns of its risks: “This profiling should never be used in a way that would fuel discrimination.” Further on, “Indicators are not evidence; they are the starting point for further investigation.”

The slideshow which can be found in the original article shows important excerpts of the minutes of the investigation written by Frontex Agents and officers of the judicial police of Catania. They demonstrate the use of profiling in practice, however, they also constitute the entire investigation rather than its “starting point”.

“Chief Insp. Macaluso Santo first entered the space called the “Red Zone” and noticed that about 9-10 male subjects were rejected and driven away with screaming and pushing when trying to join the other migrants”, according to the notes of Vice-Petty Officer Giovanni Arcidiacono. “The mentioned migrants were grouped in a corner, obviously afraid and curious about the activities carried out by this police unit, following every movement with a strange interest. They were talking exclusively among themselves.” This observation, which is a mere investigative cue, has been used as fundamental evidence in the process.


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During the hearing, other statements by the inspector were considered to be independent corroboration of the survivors’ accounts. Without independent corroboration, a clue reported by a witness cannot be considered as evidence. In the courtroom the inspector reported to have noticed “a strange movement of some migrants who were distinguished from the others by the color of their skin” when he was on board the Siem Pilot. “They were much lighter than the others, while the others were very dark, black”.

The defense focused on the inconsistencies of Macaluso’s declarations, from comments about the skin color of the suspects, to the fact that on board the Siem Pilot there were migrants from two separate rescue operations. The Court of Appeal, however, considered him credible.

The interrogations

After the disembarkation in Catania on 17 August – between 15:50 and 21:00, 15 police and financial officers recorded nine interrogations. As the witnesses were themselves potentially liable to investigation for the crime of illegal immigration, a court-appointed lawyer and an interpreter were present. All minutes have the same structure: they begin with an account of the personal motivation for undertaking such a perilous journey. They then continue, in the second part, with the examination of two collections of photographs: the first with pictures of the corpses, the second with pictures of survivors.

Despite the double mediation of the interpreter and the bureaucratic language of the police, the personal accounts are full of details. For example, one Ivorian witness recounts the days leading up to her departure:

“On Monday the 10th of this month, at about 2 a.m., two Libyans came to the house and picked up the three of us – my brother, my sister-in-law and me – and when they arrived at another house they only dropped off me and my sister-in-law, while my brother stayed with the Libyans”. This is the testimony of another Moroccan: “I worked for about six months in Libya as a mason to save enough money to pay the smugglers. I gave the money to my compatriot Nassim, who, on Friday 14 August, took me to Zuwara in a van.

What emerges from all these testimonies is a coherent description of boarding and departure. On the night of 14 August, armed Libyan smugglers rounded up hundreds of migrants from various collection centres and gathered them on the beach. They transported them in a rubber dinghy in groups of 30, and embarked them on a wooden boat moored offshore. They started with sub-Saharan Black men, who were forced into the hold, already filled with fumes from the running engine.

Besides them, there were people from Pakistan and Bangladesh for whom the smugglers reserved the worst seats on board. This reconstruction is credible because it matches what other survivors have already testified: in addition to women and children, other Arabic people (Libyans, but also Moroccans, Tunisians and Egyptians) travelled above deck, following a racist logic of seat allocation. At the end of the boarding operations, which lasted a few hours, the smugglers left the boat and returned to land in their rubber dinghies. Until the transfer to the Siem Pilot, no one above deck realised that 49 people had lost their lives in the hold,

After taking these testimonies, the investigators had the interviewees consult two folders of pictures. In the first, the five witnesses who claimed to have lost a relative could not identify anyone. In the second, all the witnesses (except for the Sudanese man who was below deck) recognised some ‘crew members’. The latter are accused by the survivors of having violently prevented those below deck from coming up for air, thus causing their death. There is no way of knowing what questions were asked to the survivors, because the minutes only contain a list of accusatory statements preceded by the letters “ADR”, A Domanda Risponde – namely: ‘To the question, they answered’.

Several elements of these statements are not convincing. In fact, some excerpts from the interrogation are repeated verbatim across testimonies.

The same sentences are found in five reports, including, “I recognise the person bearing the number 157 as the master of the vessel, the one who steered the vessel throughout the crossing” or the variant “In the picture, I recognise the face bearing the number 157 as the master of the vessel, the one who steered the vessel throughout the crossing”. The wording “I also remember that he gave frequent instructions to the persons I recognised under number…” is repeated with the persons identified by numbers 270, 201, 186, 156 and 153 (five of the eight defendants).

Adding to the suspicion that there might have been a judicious use of ‘copy-paste’ is the fact that in two interrogations typing errors are repeated, for example: ‘I personally saw him stand over the trap door and [misspelled in Italian] block it from opening. He used a belt and violently beat all those who asked to go up [misspelled in Italian] to get some air”. Moreover, three others contain five identical answers

The first 48 hours of the investigation

Minutes of the investigation gathered by police officers shortly after disembarkation

The pretrial hearing

On 21st and 24th August, eight of the nine witnesses appeared before the judge in Catania to be cross-examined by the public prosecutor and the defence. This procedural stage is called “incidente probatorio” (pretrial hearing): it allows the evidence, which in this case was the police identifications, to be “crystallised”.

During the pretrial hearing, it became clear that this trial would follow the pattern of mafia trials. Two elements demonstrate this: the first is the promise of a protection mechanism for those who cooperate (specifically, as in other similar proceedings, witnesses are granted a residence permit); the second is the decision to protect witnesses by placing them in a booth. It was intended to prevent the accusers and accused from coming face to face, due to fear of repercussions or threats. As a result, the identification of the crew members took place only through photo albums and not in person. However, both prosecutors and the defence agreed to conduct the trial in this manner.

From the pretrial transcript of the cross-examination, several weak elements of the testimonies emerge, although the defendants’ lawyer did not seem able to highlight them.

The first unconvincing elements concern the identification of the alleged crew. A Pakistani witness reported some people in uniform (‘with a different jacket from everyone else’). An Ivorian woman spoke of whistles used by the crew to maintain order. These two details are not mentioned in any other testimony. Another telling moment is when a Moroccan witness claims that he was recognised by the crew during the night because of “the light of the moon”. But there was a new moon on the night of 14 August 2015. It is one of many obviously erroneous details that is left completely unchallenged.

Witness statements about the size of the crew are also contradictory. Again a Pakistani witness:

Public Prosecutor – Do you remember how many people you recognised?

Interpreter, Khalil A. – Yes, three, five I could identify them, recognise them.

Prosecutor – No, how five!?

Interpreter, Khalil A. – Three or five. Three, four indeed.

The problems continued with the photographic recognition. In the album in front of him, the witness pointed to a photo that did not correspond to any of the eight defendants and which he himself had never previously said he recognised:

Interpreter, Khalil A. – 164 – for which there is no signature, however, he immediately

Says – this is it, this is it. This was one of the guards who was beating on top. He was on top, he also hit on top, because he is one of the guards.

Public Prosecutor – So he also hit the people who were on top, in the upper part of the boat.

Judge – But this is not one of the suspects.

Interpreter, Khalil A. – So, he beat those who tried to go upstairs.

Judge – Let’s go on.

Public Prosecutor – He must check if he recognises his own signatures.

Public Prosecutor, Dr La Rosa – He has to check again the photos in which he puts his own signatures.

Judge – Exactly. Let’s not digress. It is important from a procedural point of view.

Another Moroccan witness did not even recognise his own signatures (‘I did not put any initials’), while an Ivorian woman denied having made any photographic recognition in front of the police, confirming the state of shock in which she found herself less than five days after the shipwreck and the death of her brother. She also added that she had not witnessed any acts of violence, contrary to the police report. She then withdrew her accusations against the defendants, pointing out that the smugglers who had loaded the migrants into the boat had then returned to Libya.

A Sudanese boy who travelled in the hold spoke of people on board asking the others not to move. No one disobeyed ‘because,’ he says, ‘we were all afraid’ that the boat would capsize, not because of threats or beatings.

A frame of the documentary Fuocoammare on the life of migrants on the island of Lampedusa and their struggles for crossing the Sicily Canal, available in Italian on Raiplay

From these words, it emerges that there was no act of organised violence to force people to stay below deck. At most there was a struggle to maintain each one’s position on board an overcrowded and precarious boat, loaded to the gunwales by smugglers who remained in Libya. This reconstruction is consistent with the coroner’s examination, according to which ‘none of the 49 bodies examined showed evidence of recent traumatic injuries of any appreciable extent’.
The rulings

If putting oneself at the helm of a boat to seek a better life in Europe is to be considered a crime, the only one of the eight defendants about whom there is any serious indication of guilt is Couchane Moahmed Ali.

On the night between August 14 and 15, 2015, Couchane, by his own admission, piloted the boat on which 49 people lost their lives. He did so without availing himself of the assistance of any “crew”. But to Couchane’s confession, the courts have preferred the accusatory material produced by the Police, Guardia di Finanza and the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

The accusatory statements are inconsistent, contradictory, and given by exhausted, traumatized and sometimes tearful witnesses, in one case even without an interpreter. This, however, was not the the view taken by the Court of Appeal: “The depositions were made in the immediacy of the rescue… and then they were repeated with accuracy and coherence… during the pretrial hearing, without registering particular states of mind such as trauma, desperation or inability to express oneself that could have suggested a mental disturbance such as toaffect the reliability of the witnesses”.

Other cases

Between 2014 and 2015, with the consolidation of the investigative methods of the Anti-Mafia District Directorates, alleged ‘crew members’ were brought to trial for all major boat arrivals, especially those with victims. The accusations – such as the use of belts and sticks to keep order on board – often resemble each other, and the methods of investigation have been standardised.

These are some examples:

28 August 2015. Frontex ship Poseidon retrieved 494 shipwrecked people, including 53 bodies. The Italian liaison officer on board pre-selected eight suspects. Upon disembarkation in Palermo, an Italian police officer saw “the ‘witnesses’ shouting at the suspects, who had disembarked last, and pointing at them”. They were all acquitted. The Court considered that “the identification of the suspects, with the exception of the driver, was the result of mere chance”.

5 August 2015. The Irish navy ship L.E. Niamh rescued 367 shipwrecked people, recovering 26 bodies. On the ship, which disembarked in Palermo, Italian police gave a bracelet to five shipwrecked people, marking them as ‘suspect’ and keeping them out of sight of the other survivors. Witnesses then recognised the five people from a photo album in which the ‘suspect’ bracelet was clearly visible. All but the driver were subsequently acquitted.

19 July 2014. The Danish merchant ship Torm Lotte rescued 569 people. There were hundreds of victims. The police of Messina, who boarded the ship, selected a group of five suspects and disembarked them separately: a group of witnesses would go on to accuse them of kicking and whipping people with belts and distributing water bottles. They were sentenced to 30 years.

Do the statements from the pretrial hearing contradict those in the Summary Witness Information? This should have been pointed out by the attorneys at the pre-trial hearing, but as they did not do so, the Court of Appeal says that there are no contradictions, so only the last statements count as evidence.

Witnesses who occupied the most distant and disparate positions on the barge claim to have been able to identify the same crew members in the dark of night because of their proximity, and invent imaginative details about whistles and uniforms. The Court of Appeal dismisses these problems as, “Discrepancies or divergences of detail.”

Is the profiling carried out by inspector Santo Macaluso mere innuendo and not based on factual data? On the contrary, the “evidentiary relevance” according to the Court of Appeal of Catania is “irrefutable”: “The repulsion towards the smugglers, of generalized character because it came from people belonging to different ethnic groups, is explained … with the attribution to the conduct of the defendants of the serious events that occurred,” write the judges in the ruling.

“Copy & paste” minutes

Same typos and full sentences repeat themselves in the transcriptions of interviews

In the final submissions in the appeal process, the Attorney General stated: “There is no escape from this alternative: either they are smugglers or they are migrants”. In convicting, the Court of Appeal of Catania contradicted him: “The motivations that had pushed each of them to leave Libya devastated by war, as well as the payment for the journey to reach Europe, are to be considered true”. But nor have links with criminal organizations in Libya, for example the mafia of Zawiya or groups then active in Sabratha and Zuwara, been found. Nevertheless, according to the judges, this does not affect the guilt of the accused.

The parallel diplomatic file

Throughout 2020, the judicial procedure was intertwined with broader diplomatic relations between Italy and Libya.

In September 2020, 18 Sicilian fishermen were arrested by the authorities in Benghazi, in the area under the control of General Khalifa Haftar. They were arrested on false charges of drug trafficking and illegally entering Libyan territorial waters. In exchange for their release, the local government demanded the release of four of the eight defendants who, according to the Libyan authorities, were Libyan footballers falsely accused of human trafficking by Italian courts.

The Catania Public Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro said the prisoner exchange prospect was ‘a provocation. He said to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the case ‘had nothing to do with young footballers’. Zuccaro stated: ‘They were condemned not only for being in command of the boat, but also for murder, having caused the death 49 migrants held in the hold. The 49 migrants were left to die in a ruthless manner. They were mercilessly left to die, the hatchway was bolted so as to not let them on deck. One of the most brutal episodes ever recorded.’

The exchange did not take place. In December last year, the then Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio went to Benghazi and obtained the release of the prisoners through controversial negotiations with the warlord Khalifa Haftar.

The end of that crisis has not, however, defused Libya’s demand for the extradition of the convicted Libyans to Italy. As a spokesman for the Italian Ministry of the Interior told to IrpiMedia, the authorities in Tripoli and Benghazi raise the problem in almost all bilateral meetings with Italy: “For years now they have been asking for a procedure for those sentenced in their respective countries to serve their sentences in their countries of origin”.

For the time being, Italy has not complied with the request, given the political importance, of bringing smugglers to prison. Even when the evidence does not reach the threshold of reasonable doubt’.



Lorenzo D’Agostino


Lorenzo Bodrero


Lorenzo Bagnoli


A frame from the documentary Fuocoammare