Posted on July 16, 2004

Italy May Demolish German Relief Vessel, July 15

ROME — Italy may have to demolish the Cap Anamur freighter currently docked in Sicily under provisions set out by the country’s anti-immigration laws, La Repubblica reported on Thursday, citing a magistrate close to the investigation.

“This is a ship that has assisted illegal immigrants. According to Italian law, therefore, it will be confiscated and will eventually be demolished,” the magistrate, who has not been named, was quoted as saying.

The cargo ship is owned by the private German relief agency Cap Anamur, was seized by Italian officials on Monday, shortly after its arrival in Porto Empedocle.

Police also arrested its captain, first officer and owner, Cap Anamur chief Elias Bierdel. The three are accused of aiding and abetting illegal immigration, a charge that carries stiff prison sentences according to an anti-immigration law approved recently by Italy’s centre-right government.

The three are currently held in police custody and judges are expected to rule on Friday whether magistrates had legal grounds to order their arrest.

The Cap Anamur affair originated several weeks ago, when the ship rescued 37 shipwrecked African immigrants off Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

The ship was initially denied permission to dock in Italy but was eventually allowed to do so after its captain said some of the immigrants were threatening to throw themselves overboard.

Cap Anamur was told the immigrants had fled the war-torn Darfur region, in Sudan, and that they would be seeking political asylum in Europe.

Police in Italy, however, now say the immigrants may have come from Ghana, Nigeria and Niger.

Although a special commission is expected to rule on their asylum status shortly, Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu has already said their applications appear to be “substantially inadmissible”.

Germany, meanwhile, has already ruled out granting the immigrants asylum. On Wednesday, Interior Minister Otto Schily backed Italy’s tough stance on the issue, saying the German aid agency may face prosecution for trying to smuggle illegal immigrants into the European Union.

“We saved human lives, we did not commit a crime,” Cap Anamur officials were quoted by La Repubblica as saying Thursday. “Perhaps we made some mistakes, and for this we are sorry. But we are not criminals,” they added.

The Cap Anamur is a 20-year-old ship and is the organization’s first fully owned vessel, having been purchased in 2003. It’s overall length is 100 metres.