By Fiona Ehlers
Seven Muslim refugees from Africa were recently convicted in Italy of throwing Christians from a dinghy on the journey across the Mediterranean. Prosecutors say it was a crime of faith. But was it?
Eight men from Africa step in front of the prison gate. It is a dark night and they look around expectantly. It is their first step into freedom, a moment for which they have been waiting for quite some time – the end of a journey during which they have faced more than human beings can bear: crossing the desert,the war in Libya, fleeing across the sea, people drowning, and then two years locked away in this high-security prison near Palermo, Sicily.
But now they are free, eight young men around 20 years of age, with narrow faces and thin beards, released after a judge handed down his verdict on this dark morning. And yet the feelings they had on the high seas are still with them, the feeling of being hunted and in danger, the inability to discern between good and bad. They have lost all sense of orientation. With their belongings – sneakers, jeans and some notebooks – stuffed into trash bags thrown over their shoulders, they glance up at the moon and then start walking toward a brighter patch in the sky, assuming the light comes from the city.
At about 5 a.m., they relate the next day, they happened upon a fellow African migrant who showed them the way to a refugee camp. At the camp, they borrowed someone’s mobile phone to call their families. “You’re alive?” they asked hesitantly at first, but then they sounded overjoyed and vowed to slaughter a lamb in Mali or the Ivory Coast to celebrate this joyous day, Alhamdulillah, “Praise be to Allah.”
The eight Africans were acquitted over an incident that allegedly occurred on the Mediterranean Sea between the coast of Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa. Some say it was murder, though there are no bodies and no evidence. Others, both those who were acquitted and those who were found guilty, see it as a deeply tragic incident – but not a crime. In the end, the case boils down to one question: Were the victims pushed or did they fall? That one question sums up the entire affair.
In the news, the incident was portrayed as follows: On April 11, 2015, more than 100 refugees boarded a 12-meter (40-foot) rubber raft on the Libyan coast. Two days later, the crew of a merchant vessel rescued 95 people. At least nine passengers were missing. Once they finally reached land in Palermo, six of the passengers filed a criminal complaint, alleging that a monstrous crime had been committed.
Extremism and Premeditated Murder?
According to their story, 15 Muslim men deliberately pushed nine Christians into the sea on two consecutive nights during the voyage. The witnesses say that the victims drowned within minutes in the frigid water. The passengers had hardly reached the port of Palermo before Italian prosecutors began their investigation into criminal case number 7209/2015.
“The war of the religions has now reached the boats of the banished,” Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun wrote in La Repubblica the next day. In a press conference, the chief public prosecutor in Palermo referred to “dangerous payloads,” which seemed to hint at extremism and premeditated murder. But is this true? Can the refugee drama unfolding on the Mediterranean Sea get even worse, with the addition of religious mania and terror? Is there such a thing as jihad on a rubber raft?
The Italian government devoted a great deal of effort to case number 7209/2015, treating it with the utmost care. It was as if the case involved an attack on the Western world, on Catholic Italy, the final proof that Islamic State is smuggling fighters into Europe. Italy needs arguments to reinforce its call for more support from its European partners, and the Islamic State is a powerful argument. It would justify the government taking a tougher approach toward refugees and migrants arriving by boat, as well as a military operation in Libya, which the Italian parliament already approved in late July 2017.
Almost two years after the fatal crossing, Judge Alfredo Montalto read the verdict reached by a jury in the Aula Bunker, fewer than 100 meters from the port where the defendants made landfall. The bomb-proof building, where the trials against the Cosa Nostra were conducted in the 1980s, is about as charming as a Scientology temple. The 15 defendants are densely packed into cages. It takes less than two minutes to read out the verdict, which is followed by screams, as some of the Africans sink to the ground and bury their faces in their hands.
Public prosecutors had demanded life sentences for multiple premeditated murders. The defense had argued that the defendants acted in self-defense and demanded acquittal. The court split the difference. The judge sentenced seven men to 18 years in prison for manslaughter and acquitted eight others. The alleged religious motive was dropped.
The case illustrates how the government is flexing its muscles, pretending to impose justice rather than detaining the real culprits, the gangs of human traffickers and all those who profit from the plight of refugees. It is akin to a proxy war, a symbol of Europe’s misguided migration policy.
Fight for Survival
And it hasn’t ended yet. The public prosecutor’s office has filed an appeal, and the case is expected to continue in the spring.
The passengers’ fight for survival began on the Libyan coast on a night in April 2015. In Garabulli, located just up the coast from Tripoli, thousands were waiting to begin their voyage – and roughly 100 men and women boarded a rubber raft. They were from the Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria and Ghana – and they had made it through the desert, arriving in Tripoli on heavily overloaded trucks. They thought they had survived the worst part of their journey, and that all they had to do now was reach the other side of the Mediterranean where the good life was about to begin.
But the circumstances of the crossing were chaotic and extremely dangerous from the start, as the judge stated in the grounds for his decision: “A group of complete strangers from eight different countries were crammed together in a tight space for days, completely isolated from the rest of the world.” It’s not a particularly tenable situation.
In their testimony, the witnesses described how they had noticed, during the first 24 hours, that the tube at the front of the raft was losing air and water was seeping into the boat. By the second night, still with no land in sight, arguments and fights began to break out. Everyone was on edge.
The witness Augustin K., a Christian from Ghana who had spent five years sorting garbage in Tripoli, said: “I don’t know what the reason was. Maybe it was because there were too many of us on board, or it was to make the boat lighter. One member of our group of English speakers understood what the others were saying in French: They wanted to throw us overboard, including me.”
Jamal O., also from Ghana, the only Muslim among the witnesses, said: “A man from Mali saw that we were not praying. He came over to me and said that my friends and I would end up in the sea, because we don’t believe in the same God. He hit me in the face with his fist.”
The witness Francis E., a Christian from Nigeria with short dreadlocks, said: “I remember that the Muslims specifically said that they would not tolerate any Christians on board. They were in the majority. They tried to push me overboard, but they were unable to because we fought back with hands and feet.”
No Laws, No Prayers
If what the witnesses say is true, they experienced what they refer to as “the end of the world” on their voyage – a terrible place where anarchy and violence prevail, where it stinks of excrement and fear, where there are no laws and where no prayers are answered.
Shortly after 8 a.m. on the morning of the third day, a Monday, a call was received at Italian coast guard headquarters in Rome from a satellite telephone with a Libyan number. The authorities were able to locate the boat. The dispute began in those early morning hours.
Were people thrown into the water?
Yeboah E., a Christian from Accra in Ghana, said: “I saw three Nigerians and six Ghanaians drowning. One of the victims was my brother Nana, born June 4, 1987. Two of my friends, Amankwana and Asiedu, were the last ones to be pushed into the water. None of them could swim. I heard their screams, and then they were gone.”
Is it possible that the account these six witnesses gave the judges, heads bowed and voices faltering, was fabricated? Even after the verdict, they continue to insist it is true. What interest could they possibly have in making up the entire story, now that they alive and safe in Europe?
Drowning is a horrible way to die. The victim chokes on inhaled water, coughs it back out and then inhales again. If the water temperature is lower than 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), the victim is at risk of cold shock, which triggers involuntary inhalation. Before long, kicking becomes impossible and victims sink underwater, trying to hold their breath. The glottis spasms and closes the airways – at which point victims lose consciousness, their hearts stop and death ensues.
How could the survivors bear having witnessed such suffering? Yeboah E. said they sat quietly in the boat, afraid to complain. Agyamang K., a thin Nigerian who was limping because, he claims, a Muslim bit him in the foot, said: “I cannot say exactly how long it lasted. I think it was three hours before the ship came and rescued us.”
A Struggle That Has Only Just Begun
At 10:45 a.m. on Monday, the Italian coast guard sent an emergency message to the captain of the Ellensborg, a 138-meter (452-foot) cargo vessel. The captain, a man from Thailand named Kitichai, changed his course, but it took another 12 hours before the refugees were rescued. The first passengers climbed up the ladder onto the ship’s deck at 10:31 p.m., with the rescue having been completed by 11 p.m. “Men 82, women 12, children 1, total 95. Best regards, Master Kitichai,” the captain wrote in a message to Rome.
On the Ellensborg, the survivors were given thermal blankets before being registered and photographed. The photos would later help to identify the presumed perpetrators.
The ship arrived in Palermo on Wednesday morning and two priests were waiting in the harbor to tend to the needs of migrants in Palermo, one of them, a priest from the Ivory Coast. It breaks his heart, he says, every time he watches his brothers take their first steps onto European soil, beaming with joy and unaware that their struggle has only just begun. When he sees migrants who have been in Italy for a while and are lying around in rags in front of soup kitchens, he asks them: “Well? Was it worth it, yourtrip to paradise?”
The priests welcomed the witnesses, five Christians and one Muslim. They were agitated and beside themselves with rage and despair in the port as they described the violent scenes they claimed to have witnessed on board.
In addition to the priests, there were also police officers waiting at the pier, having been alerted by the captain. The case began to pick up speed.
When the passengers were asked to identify the attackers in photos, two thirds pointed to the same faces. The 15 men, were separated from the others while still in the harbor and taken to Pagliarelli, the high-security prison in Palermo. The public prosecutor requested permission to place the men in pre-trial detention. The justice minister in Rome had to approve the investigation since the alleged crime had taken place in international waters.
The prosecution’s six witnesses, young men in their early twenties, with thin beards and narrow faces, were brought to the interior of the island by officials from the prosecutor’s office. They were taken to Corleone, of all places, the battlefield of the Cosa Nostra, and put up in the disused Hotel Belvedere. When they stepped from their rooms onto the balcony, they looked out over gently rolling hills that looked like waves, reminding them of the moving sea and the trauma they had experienced. Then they would quickly return to their rooms, as if they needed a roof over their heads. The ordeal was still all too vivid in their minds and souls.
A Different Account
They said that the Muslims had demanded that they say nothing, not a word to the police. “But we have to say what happened,” said Yeboah E., his voice sounding shrill. When asked whether he felt sorry for the men in prison, he said nothing at first. “Sometimes we regret,” said Yeboah E., looking around and seeing the others nod, “having told the truth.” Their truth.
Testimony from the Muslim defendants, given to investigators, sounds a bit different:
“It was the third day at sea. It had come to the point that we were drinking our won piss. I heard no one yelling for help,” said Moussa K., from the Ivory Coast.
“I swear to God that I didn’t push anyone into the water. I could have died myself,” said Mohamed K., from Mali.
“What they are saying is simply not true. Even my own cousin is dead,” said Baptiste N., from the Ivory Coast.
“It wasn’t me. The rubber raft had lost air in the front, and the people who were sitting there fell into the water at some point,” said Kaba S., from the Ivory Coast.
Essentially, their version is: Yes, it was like a battle, but it was a battle over safe places to sit, not a battle over religion. The boat had sprung a leak and there wasn’t enough space – and people fell overboard. According to this version of the story, it was simply an ordinary refugee drama, nothing less, but also nothing more.
But after the hearings, the examining magistrates concluded that the statements by the witnesses were convincing and largely consistent with one another. “Every victim was attacked and beaten before being thrown overboard,” reads the report from the evidentiary hearing. There was “no acute threat to life.” There was “a single motive” behind the “multiple premeditated killings,” namely “hatred of people who practice a different religion.”
The description of the alleged murderers sounds merciless. The “large number of victims” and the fact that they “cold-bloodedly looked on as people drowned” suggested a “contempt for human life and the total inability to control their own impulses.” The defendants are described as people with a “compulsive urge to commit violent crimes.” According to the report, the accused posed a considerable flight risk, and there was an acute possibility that they would commit the same crimes again.
Unambiguous statements. But are they fair?
People who work with refugees, including aid workers, activists and members of the clergy, question these assessments. They believe that the notion of “jihad in a rubber raft” is a dangerous and misguided theory. Conflicts among refugees are relatively common, they say, and sometimes the conflicts are about religion, but refugees tend to stick together in the boats.
‘In a Bad Way’
After months of investigations, the results of which filled hundreds of pages of court files, the trial in criminal case 7209/2015 began in February 2016 and ultimately lasted more than a year. Day after day, the defendants sat in their cages, listening to the words of their 11 attorneys. Throughout the trial, it appeared that they did not fully grasp that they could face the ultimate punishment: life in prison. A bitter irony for these young Africans, who had believed that they were fleeing to freedom.
Their lead defense attorney, Giuseppe Brancato, 40, regularly visited the 15 defendants in prison. He brought them clothes and comforted them, but that was all he could do. “They’re in a bad way,” said the lawyer, adding that he was afraid they might hurt themselves.
Brancato, with a narrow face, soft features and nervous hands, is an up-and-coming attorney. He wasn’t eager to take on the case, and he cursed it many on several occasions. To him, he says, it felt like a war crimes tribunal.
But why the trial? Because, as the attorney puts it, lawyers and politicians in Rome and Palermo wanted to add “fuel to the fire” with this case. Were there Islamists on board the rubber raft? He doesn’t believe there were. His clients, he said, were ordinary men, not fanatics.
To prepare for his closing argument, Brancato watched the film “Life of Pi.” Supposing that people actually did drown, isn’t it possible, he asked, that the witnesses had only seen the violence in their fantasies, in order to help cope with their experiences? In other words, isn’t it easier, even more human, to believe in the version involving God, with men killing in the name of God, than in the version in which there is no God, in which people turn into beasts to stay alive?
There is probably no place more godless than a sinking ship on the high seas. And one God is supposed to have been responsible for that – even two? “I find that hard to believe,” the attorney said with a hint of a smile.
While a rescue ship was unloading yet another thousand refugees in the harbor, Brancato delivered his closing argument. In his fiery but polished speech, he described the dramatic hours on the high seas. He took apart the method the police officers used to identify the presumed perpetrators, by showing the exhausted passengers the same group of photos again and again. He dissected the approach taken by the investigative judges, who applied pressure and kept asking the same amateurish questions: “Who did you see? When exactly was that? Do you believe in Allah?”
Not a Crime?
The attorney described two worlds that had collided, two languages, English and French, and two cultures that were foreign to one another.
Brancato also asked questions: What does it mean that one of the victims is a Muslim and one of the defendants is a Christian? Doesn’t this torpedo the theory of a religious war? And why did all the crimes take place after dark? The attorney argued that it was self-defense. It was certainly true that terrible things had happened on board, he said, but there was absolutely no proof of any premeditated killings or of “jihad in a rubber raft.” The passengers were exhausted, and everyone had tried to save himself. As terrible as this may have been, it was not a crime.
In eight cases, the court complied with the defense’s request, granting an acquittal. Since then, the eight men who walked to Palermo during the night have been hiding in a refugee hostel run by monks. In order to obtain a temporary residence permit, they would have to go to the police station in Palermo, but they are afraid to do so, says Brancato.
Seven defendants, however, will remain in prison after being sentenced to 18 years for manslaughter. Witnesses had seen them giving orders in the boat, biting and beating people, and pushing them into the water. They have been held at the high-security prison in Palermo for two-and-a-half years, and they are becoming increasingly desperate. Since it became clear that the case would be appealed at the beginning of this year, and that the public prosecutor’s office might request an increase of the sentence to life imprisonment, Brancato has been receiving handwritten letters of entreaty almost daily.
“I can’t sleep anymore. I am beside myself with fear,” one of the convicted men writes. “Please don’t let us down!”
“I didn’t throw anyone overboard,” another one writes. “I am, as you know, Avvocato, not a bad person, but merely a castaway searching for a little happiness in Italy.”
Three of the six witnesses still live in Corleone in rooms behind closed curtains, and they too seem imprisoned. They are under enormous pressure. They say that God did not save them for nothing. “He expects us to do something with our lives.” They believe last spring’s verdict was too lenient. “Your justice system is so complicated,” one of them says. “I had expected more justice. I am disappointed.”
Criminal case 7209/2015 is one that can be turned over again and again. But it cannot be solved. And it is a case where there are no winners, only losers.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan