Lives lost at sea: Is the silence of the justice the price of the army’s impunity?

ASGI/Gisti/Migreurop Statement

"[On 27 March 2011], a small boat left Tripoli with 72 people on board and, after two weeks adrift at sea, ran aground on the Libyan coast with only nine survivors. No one came to the rescue of this boat, despite the distress signals registered by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, which located it. Several direct contacts between this boat in distress and other vessels apparently took place, including with a military helicopter, which supplied the boat with biscuits and water but never returned, with two fishing boats, both of which refused to provide assistance, and with a large military vessel in close proximity to the boat, which ignored its obvious distress signals.
In the light of this tragedy, a series of failings emerge: [...] the Italian and Maltese maritime rescue coordination centres did not take responsibility for launching a search and rescue operation, and NATO did not react to the distress signals, even though military vessels under its command were in the vicinity of the boat when the distress signal was sent".

Extract from the report by the Council of Europe’s Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons: "Lives lost in the Mediterranean: who is responsible?", 29 March 2012.

Following this tragedy, the nine survivors of the Left-to-die boat, supported by nine NGOs, filed a complaint for failure to assist a person in danger before the courts of several countries whose fleets were deployed in the area where their boat drifted, as part of the blockade imposed on Libya by NATO. In the meantime, the report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and an investigation by Forensic Architecture had meticulously cross-checked the testimonies of the survivors with the navigational records of the various military vessels (planes, helicopters, ships) in operation at the time [1] . It was up to justice to do the rest: to gather the authorities’ version of the probable failings of the naval and air forces likely to have been involved, in the various countries concerned.

Twelve years on, what has become of these complaints? In Spain and Belgium, the investigation has been dismissed. In Italy, where the case was first referred to the public prosecutor’s office barely two months after the events, a major investigation was conducted by the Rome military prosecutor’s office. To date, this investigation is the only one to have clarified certain aspects of this deadly event on a European scale, but it has nevertheless resulted in the case being dismissed. While the victims continue to pursue civil action, the flaws in the national search and rescue system, identified in 2012 by the Council of Europe, are still struggling to be brought to light.

In France, a particularly botched investigation would have buried the case if the persistence of the civil parties had not succeeded in getting the Court of Cassation and then the Paris Court of Appeal, in 2022, to overturn the decision to dismiss the case four years earlier. This reversal gave hope to the plaintiffs and the associations supporting them that, more than ten years after the events, the investigation would finally be able to begin...

It must be said, however, that the French justice system is in no hurry to meet the expectations of the victims. However, the evidence in its possession shows that on at least two occasions, the Armed Forces General Staff lied. Firstly, by asserting that the aircraft involved in the operation had not been tasked with any surveillance mission at sea in the drifting sector of the Left- to-die Boat, only to admit several years later that an aircraft had indeed flown over the dinghy. Secondly, by maintaining that no French vessel was in the area crossed by the boat people, even though in its own official communication in 2011 it had published a map showing the opposite.

This judicial inertia is even more shocking given that the French, Italian, Greek and British courts are much quicker to sentence alleged smugglers to heavy prison sentences - for driving a boat, holding a GPS, calling for help - than to render justice to the survivors of the shipwrecks [2] .

The slowness of the justice system and, in France, the lies of the army, will not overcome the resistance of the survivors of the Left to Die boat. Alongside them, but also in memory of the 63 fellow sufferers they saw die before their eyes, and for all those who, for years, have been victims of a murderous border control policy, the organisations that support them will continue to fight to ensure that these lost lives are not written off, amid general indifference...