An Italian court on Wednesday acquitted the head of German human rights organization Cap Anamur on five-year-old charges of assisting illegal immigration. Although the opinion in the ruling will not be released for three months, an Italian judge reversed charges against former Cap Anamur head Elias Bierdel, the captain of the group's eponymously named ship, Stefan Schmidt, as well as its first officer. The men faced up to four years in prison and fines of €400,000 ($590,800) if convincted.
Speaking to reporters, Bierdel, who had previously warned he might be prosecuted for "political reasons," described the ruling as a "true sensation."
In Germany, Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul said the judgment marked a "good day" for refugees. "We cannot just close our eyes to the suffering of refugees at Europe's door," she said.
The case started back in June 2004, when the crew of the organization's ship, the Cap Anamur, which was on its way to Iraq, encountered a rubber boat filled with 37 freezing and sick African refugees. The crew took the beleaguered passengers on board. They claimed to be refugees from the civil war in Sudan who had made their way to the Mediterranean via Libya.
Bierdel eventually brought reporters on to his ship as he sought to deliver the refugees to Sicily. He wanted to set an example against European policies that walled off refugees and created a situation in which people seeking a better life often drowned in the Mediterranean before reaching Europe. He wanted to cast a light on the human suffering. He ultimately succeeded, but at a very high price.
When the ship approached Italian waters, government officials in Rome banned it from anchoring in Sicily, and then Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu questioned the origin of the refugees, fearing a "dangerous precedence" if they were allowed to land.
Eventually, the Cap Anamur entered the port at Empedocle without permission. The government arrested the crew and charged senior Cap Anamur crew and Bierdel with aiding illegal immigration. The ship had previously been in Maltese waters and the Italians argued the refugees should have been dealt with there.
The Cap Anamur was seized and held for seven months, after which it was sold, and Bierdel was eventually forced to resign as head of the aid organization, which was founded at the end of the 1990s in order to rescue Vietnamese boat people. Ultimately, Bierdel would incur close to €2 million in costs for the organization, and the negative publicity led to a drop in donations to Cap Anamur.
Publicity stunt or not, though, German commentators on Thursday are highly critical of Italian immigration policies and universally argue that the court made the right move in acquiting Bierdel and his colleagues. The Italian government, they argue, went one step too far in trying to curb illegal immigration between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa. In 2008, 36,952 boat refugees arrived on Italy's shores, with the lion's share landing on Lampedusa.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Italian prosecutors described the rescue of the refugees who were taken to Italy as a 'crime.' In doing so, they gave greater weight to the refugees' nationality than rescuing them from a dangerous situation. The judge rejected this absurd view of things by acquitting Bierdel."
"Shortly after the action, it was already clear that the Cap Anamur crew had been pushed in between two fronts in European asylum policy. Rome demanded that Germany and other countries take in more boat refugees -- a move the government in Berlin continues to refuse to make even today. But the two countries were united in their anger at the time that Bierdel might succeed in bringing further immigrants to land in this fashion. Italy and then-German Interior Minister Otto Schily spoke of a 'dangerous precedent.'"
"But the real scandal is happening elsewhere -- at sea between Europe and Africa. There, Italian border police are giving canisters of gasoline to refugees in flimsy rubber boats and forcing them to return to where they came from. Nobody knows how many get there and how many drown. The only thing certain is that this year alone, they have again found more than 400 dead in the ocean and along the coasts."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Bierdel remains what he became five years ago: an unlucky man who pursued a good deed -- the rescue of refugees -- but employed unsaintly media pressure to reach his goal and, by doing so, caused long-term damage to a highly respected organization. And not just to its reputation: He wasted €2 million in donations given to the organization. Just imagine what the emergency doctors on board the Cap Anamur could have done with that money. It was certainly absurd to classify the rescue effort in the Mediterranean as criminal human trafficking. And in the end the case didn't have any merit."
The leftist Frankfurter Rundschau writes:
"The idea of criminalizing the act wasn't just that of Italy. In Germany, Schily tried to use all his strength to classify the action as illegal. The fear was and clearly remains that crews of other ships might respond in the same way as the Cap Anamur did. Instead the European Union's border agency, Frontex, which no parliament has any effective controls over, is expected to intercept the refugees, drive them away and force them to turn around. Germany is also helping, by spotting refugee boats from the air. And Germans accept that, in the process, fundamental rights are disregarded. You can't exactly fill out an asylum application or retain a lawyer when you are in deadly peril out at sea."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"It's doesn't happen often that one must praise the Italian justice system. But today one must. One would have hoped that Bierdel never would have been charged for saving the lives of 37 people. But at least his acquittal now confirms that providing humanitarian aid isn't punishable. And it cannot be made to be punishable. At least not in Europe. Even five years ago when Bierdel was charged, it was already clear that the EU's policy of walling off refugees from Africa was futile. Those who build even higher fortress walls won't be able to change the number of people each year who want to attack. It will only raise the number of people who don't survive."
"Five years have passed, but there is still no recognizable, sensible European refugee policy. Perhaps the acquittal will spur thinking about a policy. No matter what, Fortress Europe needs to be razed."
The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:
"A conviction wasn't even necessary in this case. Through the length of the case, Bierdel and Schmidt have already been heavily punished. The public debate in Germany over the apparent staging of the rescue action destroyed their reputations. With the seizure of the Cap Anamur ship and the millions-strong fine paid, the organization was also badly damaged. The principles of democracy were bypassed so that the refugees could be shipped back to Africa as quickly as possible -- without ever having the opportunity to see an attorney."
"The court's opinion hasn't been released yet. A true victory for the refugees and the aid organization would be if the court honoured the elementary norms of international sea and human rights conventions: the absolute obligation to rescue castaways as well as for states to host refugees. Indeed, it is Italy's refugee policies that should be put on trial."