An Italian judge has acquitted two men accused of people-smuggling and murder, saying they had been forced at gunpoint by Libyan traffickers to drive a rubber boat packed with migrants last year.
The judge in the Sicilian city of Palermo on Wednesday ordered that Jammeh Sulieman and Dampha Bakary, from Senegal and Gambia respectively, be released from prison, according to a copy of the ruling.
Hundreds of similar cases are pending in Italy, and the ruling may have set a historic precedent, said one of the defence lawyers in the case.
The two were accused of both people-smuggling and murder because 12 people died during the attempted crossing in July 2015 when the rubber boat they were driving started to deflate. The prosecution had sought life sentences for both.
The other migrants on the boat were rescued by an Italian coastguard vessel, along with Sulieman and Bakary, who were taken into custody when the rescue ship reached Palermo.
The defendants did not autonomously and freely set out in the Mediterranean at the helm of a flimsy boat impossibly packed with people, the judge, Gigi Omar Modica, wrote in his ruling.
Libyan people-smugglers forced them to take the helm at gunpoint, and then handed them control of the boat only after it had taken to sea. If they had turned back, it would have meant certain death at the hands of the Libyans, Modica said.
Palermo prosecutors Claudio Camilleri and Maurizio Scalia said they planned to appeal against the decision. In Italy, both prosecutors and defendants can appeal against court rulings.
Almost 800 suspected scafisti or boat smugglers were arrested in the 12 months to July, the interior ministry said in August. More than 700 were arrested in the previous 12 months.
I have many clients who are accused of driving the boats, and it’s always the same story, Cinzia Pecoraro, one of the two defence lawyers, told Reuters on Thursday.
She said armed men took them to the boats, started the engines, loaded migrants on to the vessels and then accompanied them as they set out to sea. Before abandoning the boat and returning to shore, they would tell the drivers they would be shot if they returned to Libya.
Now courts can look at each case with this sentence in mind, Pecoraro said.
Mass migration to Europe from Asia, the Middle East and Africa is now in its third year, and Italy has been on the front line since it started in 2013. Hundreds of thousands have set out fleeing violence and poverty at home.
News Source TheGuardianNews