The female captain of a rescue vessel faces up to 20 years in an Italian prison on charges of aiding illegal migration.
Her name is Pia Klemp, who is a German citizen, is a member of Sea Watch, an NGO which deploys vessels to allegedly rescue asylum seekers trying to escape Libya and reach Europe by boat.
Sea Watch is one of several NGOs which has had its operations drastically curtailed by the policies of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, who a year ago decreed that NGO boats should not be allowed into Italian ports.
Campaigners say that the policy and the trial that looms for Klemp, is part of the increasing “criminalization” of legitimate search and rescue efforts off the coast of North Africa.
Italian prosecutors are investigating allegations of aiding and abetting illegal migration.
They allege that Klemp and the crew colluded with smugglers to collect migrants at rendezvous points in the Mediterranean.
Klemp has said that if convicted in Italy, she would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
She is concerned that she could face a “show trial” that under Italy’s glacially slow judicial system could go on for years.
She and the crew have been under investigation since their ship was impounded by Italian authorities two years ago.
The Italian government ramped up its fight against illegal immigration and those that facilitate it on Tuesday, with the cabinet passing a new security decree under which rescue vessels can be fined up to €50.000 if they enter Italian waters or try to reach an Italian port.
Medecins Sans Frontieres said that in the year since Salvini closed Italy’s ports, at least 1.150 migrants have died at sea and more than 10.000 have been returned to Libya in push back operations.
“Increasingly, merchant vessels are not responding to distress cases”, said Mr. Neugebauer of Sea Watch.