As It Happens·Q&A

Captain charged after saving migrants in Mediterranean says people are still drowning

Dariush Beigui's ship, The Iuventa, has saved thousands of people from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, and he denies allegations that he worked with smugglers.

Italian prosecutors charged rescuers with collaborating with human smugglers

Dariush Beigui, captain of the Iuventa, faces up to 20 years in prison for his humanitarian work in the Mediterranean Sea. (Selene Magnolia)

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The captain of the Iuventa, a ship that has rescued thousands of people in the Mediterranean Sea, says he looks forward to defending himself in court against charges that he aided and abetted illegal immigration — but he says he isn't afraid to go to prison. 

"European prison is like a luxury hotel when you compare it with the Libyan camps where the people flee from, [who] we rescue at sea," Dariush Beigui told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Italian prosecutors have charged Beigui and roughly two dozen other rescuers from three ships with abetting illegal immigration and, in some cases, collaborating with human smugglers, the Guardian reports. The other vessels are operated by the charities Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders. 

The charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years. The Iuventa crew, Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders all deny any wrongdoing.

Here is part of of Beigui's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

How are you reacting to these charges?

When I had time to read the whole PDF from the prosecutor, I was really a little bit shocked because it's not anymore about some people from the Iuventa. But it's now a trial against 22 persons in total and two organisations ... Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children. And so from this small trial against us is coming a big trial against a big part of the NGO scene.

You … and the others face a maximum penalty of possibly 20 years in prison. So what goes through your head when you consider that possibility?

I cannot really imagine. I'm 42 years now. If I would go now for 20 year, it's half of my life. I cannot imagine this. 

But on the other hand, I'm not afraid. I don't want to be the brave guy or something like this, but I know ... when I go to prison, even if it's the highest charge ... I would go in a European prison. 

And European prison is like a luxury hotel when you compare it with the Libyan camps where the people flee from, [who] we rescue at sea. And I think everybody deserves not to stay in this camp. And of course, everybody deserves to not die at sea.

Migrants waits to disembark from the Vos Hestia ship as they arrives in the Crotone harbour, Italy, after being rescued by a Save the Children" crew in the Mediterranean sea in June 2017. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)

The charges of collaborating with smugglers, that a big accusation. What's your defence? 

The people from the Iuventa are not accused [of] working together with smugglers. We are only accused of abetting and helping illegal immigration.

Our main defence, anyway, would be, of course, that we didn't do anything wrong, that we did always follow international laws and maritime laws.

And I hope we have the chance to blame the real crimes, like illegal pushbacks or … breaking [the] international laws and international maritime laws and conventions. That is what states do.

And we want to use this process to highlight this.

You know that the Italian prosecutors say they have evidence of collaboration with the illegal smugglers and that ... it's been reported they have photos of three small boats being returned to smugglers after the people were rescued from them. What do you say in your defence about those photos?

I saw some pictures they had as evidence for the seizure of the ship ... and you see only one boat towing two other boats at sea. This picture could have [been] taken at the North Sea in the Pacific, in the Indian Ocean, [any]where, because you cannot see where it is and where they go and which direction.

A group called Forensic Architecture ...  found that this picture was cut out of a film, of a clip.

And in this clip, you can see how the waves behave and how the wind is on this day … and the weather charts, from the same day, they proved that the boat is not driving southbound, but they go in the direction north, so away from Libya.

So basically you're saying that the photos are not what they claim them to be.

Yes. 

And at the end, I'm sure they will not find any proof, because we never did it.

I'm really, completely sure … nobody would work together with Libyan smugglers or traffickers. Because we know the people who were on the boats ... and how they talked about the smugglers and the traffickers.

We hear so often that when the people don't dare to go on the boat at night, then they would get shot immediately at the beach and things like this.

That's not an option to work together with people like this. 

Beigui says he would never work with smugglers after the horror stories he's heard from the people he saved. (Iuventa)

These Libyan smugglers you refer to, these people, they prey upon these desperate refugees. These refugees pay large amounts of money to get onto these unseaworthy rubber boats.… I know this isn't your purpose, but do you think that those smugglers rely on the fact that people like yourself, NGOs, will rescue these people they put out in these rafts, and then they can take the rafts back and put more desperate people on them?

No. I think the smugglers just don't care what happens to the people. They are fine with when they get rescued, but they are also fine when the people drown. They just really, completely don't care. They put the people on the boats and send them at sea. And from that moment on, they don't care if those people survive or not.

If you had not been there, you and the other NGOs who had these boats out, what would have happened to people? 

I know that the Iuventa [performed] ... 40 missions in one year, and that several of the different crews saved in this year about ...14,000 people.

And those people would have died had you not done that?

We had often situations where we were somewhere where no other NGO ship is, and the weather was bad, and there was a rubber boat. And in that moment, it's clear [that] if we would have not [found] them, they would have been dead two hours later, maximum.

Now there are nearly no NGO ships in the Central [Mediterranean], and we hear often of boats which are seen by planes which were capsized and the people drowned. 


Written by Sarah Jackson. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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