Italy trial could deter sea rescues- rights groups

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ROME, Oct 3 (Reuters) Life-saving heroes or human traffickers? Seven Tunisian men who say they rescued 44 migrants at sea are on trial in Italy for aiding and abetting illegal immigration, facing up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

The case has alarmed human rights groups and drawn criticism from European parliamentarians, who say the Tunisians should be thanked -- not tried -- for saving people.

They fear a conviction would discourage fishermen from rescuing drowning migrants.

The seven, who say they are fishermen, were arrested on Aug. 8 after they brought 44 people, including two pregnant women and a disabled child, ashore to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where many immigrants from North Africa land on rickety boats.

The Tunisians were released after more than a month in jail but the trial is under way and a judge examined on Tuesday a request by the prosecutor to bring more charges against them.

The migrants, some of whom testified in court, have given authorities the same version: that the rubber dinghy carrying them was sinking, and that the Tunisians saved their lives.

''I have absolutely no doubt whatsever that the Tunisians were fishermen and that they rescued those people at sea,'' Helene Flautre, a European MP who has followed the case and spoke with four of the Tunisians and two of the migrants, told Reuters by phone.

''This is a miscarriage of justice with potentially dramatic consequences, because fishermen in the Mediterranean will now be even more reluctant to stop and rescue people on sinking ships,'' she said.

Flautre, who heads the European parliament's sub-committee on human rights, is one of 116 European MPs who signed a petition to the Italian government in favour of the Tunisians.

The prosecutor's case was initially based on the fact that no fishing nets and no fish were found on the Tunisians' two boats, leading him to suspect they were traffickers.

The Tunisians said their vessels were just smaller satellite boats with search lights, while the mother ship had already returned to Tunisia with the catch, one of their lawyers, Giacomo La Russa, said.

The prosecutor now wants to bring more charges against the Tunisians, because they ignored an order by Italy's coast guard -- whom they had alerted before reaching Lampedusa -- not to enter Italian waters.

''I have never heard of traffickers calling authorities before they reach the shore,'' said Chiara Tamburini, who was working in Lampedusa as a volunteer aid worker at the time.

Laura Boldrini, spokeswoman for the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR in Italy, declined to comment on the merits of the case but said: ''Fishermen play an increasingly crucial role in saving migrants at sea and they often tell us they don't feel protected by the law and by magistrates.'' A judge is due to decide whether to accept the prosecutor's request for more charges on Oct. 9.

Reuters PD DB0925

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