Italy under fire over arrestof German aid group chief
13 July 2004 , ROME - The Italian government was criticized Tuesday for its decision to arrest the head of a German aid agency which rescued 37 shipwrecked African immigrants in the Mediterranean and took them to safety to Sicily. Elias Bierdel of Cap Anamur - an NGO that helps refugees in distress at sea - was arrested Monday along with the captain and first officer of the NGO's vessel, also named the Cap Anamur. They were accused of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Italian authorities seized the
13 July 2004
ROME - The Italian government was criticized Tuesday for its decision to arrest the head of a German aid agency which rescued 37 shipwrecked African immigrants in the Mediterranean and took them to safety to Sicily.
Elias Bierdel of Cap Anamur - an NGO that helps refugees in distress at sea - was arrested Monday along with the captain and first officer of the NGO's vessel, also named the Cap Anamur. They were accused of aiding and abetting illegal immigration.
Italian authorities seized the freighter after it docked in Sicily's port of Porto Empedocle.
In Berlin, German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul demanded the immediate release of Cap Anamur's director on Tuesday.
"We cannot allow Elias Bierdel to be punished because he wanted to help people who were in grave danger," said Wieczorek-Zeul, adding: "Humanitarian actions cannot be criminalized."
Her words were echoed by Christopher Hein, head of the Italian Council for Refugees, who on Monday said the arrests meant Italy's judiciary was comparing Cap Anamur's humanitarian act to that of criminals transporting immigrants illegally for money.
Cap Anamur says its freighter picked up the illegal immigrants in the Mediterranean Sea, off Italy's island of Lampedusa, more than three weeks ago.
Italian officials had initially refused to allow the ship to dock in Sicily but eventually changed their minds after the captain sent a message reporting increased tension on the ship.
Upon their arrival in Sicily, the immigrants were taken to a temporary refugee centre on the island while Cap Anamur officials were taken in for questioning before being detained.
The immigrants, who told Cap Anamur they were of Sudanese origin, had said they would be seeking asylum in Germany. But Germany's Interior Ministry has since said their request could not be accepted as the Cap Anamur ship did not qualify as German territory.
Italian opposition parties Tuesday rebuked the Italian government over its handling of the affair, but also criticised Germany's decision not to grant the immigrants political asylum in Germany.
"Both the German and Italian authorities have been passing the buck and using ridiculous legal technicalities to avoid helping these refugees," Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio of Italy's Green Party was quoted as saying Tuesday.
Italian Justice Minister Roberto Castelli, whose Northern League party was elected to power on an anti-immigration platform, said Italy had been right not to allow the ship to dock, arguing that the entire affair risked setting a "devastating precedent".
"The message is that our country cannot control its own borders," Castelli was quoted as saying Monday.
In a statement out of its headquarters in Cologne, meanwhile, Cap Anamur said it was considering taking legal action against the Italian government.
And while the political battle flared in Rome and Berlin, a boat carrying 120 illegal immigrants quietly landed near the Sicilian town of Ragusa on Tuesday, reports said.
Thousands of immigrants reach Italy's coasts by boat illegally each year.
Subject: German news