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Italian prosecutor: no NGOs-migrant smuggler links emerge

Associated Press logo Associated Press 2/05/2017 By FRANCES D'EMILIO, Associated Press

ROME — A prosecutor based in Sicily told Italian senators Tuesday his office has found no links or contacts between migrant smugglers and humanitarian organizations operating rescue boats in the Mediterranean.

Last month, another Sicilian prosecutor raised alarm by saying in interviews he has evidence that some NGOs, established specifically to rescue migrants from foundering smugglers' boats, could be in collusion with human traffickers based in Libya, from where the vessels are launched.

Right-wing political parties, notably the anti-migrant Northern League, seized on the Catania prosecutor's comments to support their contentions that the transferring of hundreds of thousands of migrants rescued at sea to the safety of Italian ports over the past few years essentially facilitates the human traffickers' lucrative business.

But Syracuse Prosecutor Francesco Paolo Giordano told the Senate defense commission Tuesday his investigations found nothing to indicate any such links.

"As far as our office goes, nothing has emerged in terms of presumed indirect or compromising links between NGOs, or elements of them, and the smugglers of migrants," the prosecutor said.

Giordano volunteered that some NGOs have shown less-than-cooperative attitudes toward judicial authorities. "We interpret that not as aiding and abetting smugglers but rather attribute that to an ideological attitude," the prosecutor said. The NGOs are expressing "humanitarian coherence, in favor of migrants, not in favor of police" who investigate the trafficking.

He stressed the NGOS have allowed unfettered access to migrants for questioning. Police question migrants, often while still aboard rescue ships, to see if smugglers might have mingled among the passengers, which is not infrequently the case.

Catania Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro, in interviews, has said there are indications that some NGO boats turn off transponders so their movements can't be traced and then enter Libyan territorial waters to pluck migrants from overcrowded, unseaworthy smugglers' boats.

Doctors Without Borders officials told the senators later Tuesday their rescue craft have entered Libyan waters only five times, and always under exceptional circumstances and after first clearing it with the Italian coast guard, which coordinates all migrant rescues, and receiving an OK from Libyan maritime authorities, too.

Loris De Filippi, president of Doctors Without Borders in Italy, said the organization was "deeply indignant" over the allegations.

Zuccaro has said his probe doesn't involve Doctors Without Borders or Save the Children, but instead is scrutinizing the operations and financing of several NGO newcomers, including from Malta, Germany and Spain.

Giordano used the hearing to draw attention to another trafficking route and method largely escaping notice.

In 2016, in his jurisdiction in southeastern Sicily, 20 sailboats, some 15 meters (50 feet) long, filled with a few dozen Syrians and sailing from Turkey arrived.

"It's a new flow," Giordano said. He described these migrants as "upscale Syrians, professionals, college graduates, doctors, engineers," arriving on vessels, which, compared to the leaky rubber dinghies and rickety wooden fishing boats launched from Libya, constitute an almost "luxury" brand of trafficking.

Last week, one such sailboat disembarked its Syrian passengers, then headed back toward Turkey, Giordano said. An Italian investigation and a European arrest warrant resulted in the arrest of three Ukrainian crewmembers in Crete.

A few sailboats have reached the Italian mainland, including in the southern region of Calabria, Giordano said. "But we don't know if they were pushed there by the wind or directed there possibly by a logistics base" of traffickers on Italy, he said.

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Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio

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