German boat captain faces 20 years in prison for saving refugees

Pia Klemp.

A German boat captain faces a long and costly trial in Italy for charges targeting her humanitarian efforts on behalf of refugees. 

Captain Pia Klemp told Basler Zeitung on June 7 that her upcoming trial in Italy for years of efforts with the civilian lifeboat Iuventa that saved at least 1000 lives, will take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Klemp faces up to 20 years in prison, but whether or not she ends up in jail, she would challenge any conviction in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, if necessary. 

“The worst has already come to pass,” said Klemp. “Sea rescue missions have been criminalised.”

Along with helping refugees, Klemp works with ocean conservation group Sea Watch.

The Italian charges against Klemp come as part of an anti-immigration crackdown by far-right interior minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who ran on imposing harsh penalties on refugees. 

“Italy's fascists are using this case as a showcase to deter others from aiding migrants,” journalist Rula Jebreal said on Twitter. “They would prefer to let people drown in the Mediterranean.”

Klemp is banned from sailing along the Italian coast due to her activism in favour of refugees. In her comments to Basler Zeitung, Klemp addressed the notion that sea rescues, like the ones she did, are in any way motivating for refugees to come to Europe. 

“People come because unfortunately there are so many reasons for flight,” said Klemp. “And they come over the Mediterranean, because there are no legal entry routes.”

Commentators on social media noted that Klemp's actions in the Mediterranean were in keeping with the United Nations’ policies on rescues at sea and the humanitarian duties of a ship captain. 

It was pointed out on Twitter that Klemp would have been in violation of the UN Law of the Sea, which requires “the master of a ship flying its flag (a) to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost” if she did not help migrants.

Klemp agreed.

“We have only followed international law, especially the Law of the Sea, where the highest priority is to save people from distress,” she told Basler Zeitung. 

Her activism was put into historical context by Peter Scott Smith, son of famed World War II veteran Harry Leslie Smith.

“In another era, Pia Klemp would have saved Jews from extermination,” tweeted Smith. “That she faces 20 years in jail in 2019 for saving refugees lost at sea, indicts the EU [European Union] for hypocrisy and abetting crimes against humanity for allowing Italy to conduct a show trial.”

A petition on calling for the charges to be dropped has already received more than 90,000 signatures.

[Abridged from Common Dreams.]