Two weeks ago 18 Italian citizens, 18 fishermen, were imprisoned in Libya by forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar. The Italian citizens are prisoners in a context of war and in the hands of militias that until now they have shown total contempt for human rights.
On September 1, Haftar’s militias intercepted and seized two fishing boats, Antartide and Medinea, that had departed from the sicilian city of Mazara del Vallo and arrested their crew on charges of violation of Libyan waters. Libya has claimed those waters since 2005 in accordance with the Montego Bay convention which allows states to declare jurisdiction over an area of up to 200 miles.
In the last 15 years, 50 boats have been seized by Libyans and about 30 Italian fishermen have been arrested and many injured by the Libyan forces.
The problem today is that, unlike what happened a few years ago, there is no single institutional interlocutor to talk to. After Muhammar Gaddafi fell in Libya, a civil war divided the country into two with two fronts fighting each other and supported by different regional powers: the Tripoli government, the only entity recognized by the United Nations, is backed by Turkey and Qatar and ambiguously our country too, while General Haftar is financed and armed mainly by the Emirates, Egypt, France and Russia.
Therefore the issue of the Italian fishermen fits into a very difficult context both on the internal Libyan level, due to the chaos in the country, and on the international relations, because Italy after a period of hesitation has decided to support the government led by Fayez al Sarraj. Libya is also divided into two geographical areas with the western part under the control of Tripoli and the eastern one under that of Haftar and his militias. The 18 Italian citizens were intercepted off the east coast and therefore in the hands of forces with which the dialogue at this time is very difficult or at least more onerous.
According to the Libyan press, in exchange for the freedom of Sicilian fishermen, Haftar is asking the release and repatriation of four Libyan citizens sentenced by the Court of Catania for the 2015 “August 15th massacre” in which they lost their lives 49 migrants traveling on a boat.
According to Italian justice, the four smugglers bolted the hold in which the migrants were locked up, causing their death by asphyxiation and for this they were sentenced to 30 years in prison. These are Alaa Faraj al-Maghribi, Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Monsef, Tariq Jumaa al-Amami and Mohamed Essid, four young people who, according to family members, gathered in a demonstration in Benghazi to ask for their release, are completely innocent and instead of smugglers they are players from Ahli Benghazi club and Libyan Tahadi club seeking for an employment with German teams.
The Public Prosecutor of Catania Carmelo Zuccaro questioned by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera replied indignantly to the exchange request: “They were not convicted only for being in command of the boat, but also for murder. Having caused the death of those they carried, 49 migrants kept in the hold. Let yourself die in a ruthless way. They blocked the door so they wouldn’t get on deck. One of the most brutal episodes ever recorded ”.
The request for an exchange of prisoners, as understood by Haftar, contributes to configuring the detention of the fishermen as a real act of piracy against Italy. The general of Cyrenaica illegally controls that portion of territory thanks to rivers of money, tons of weapons and mercenaries from the Emirates, France, Russia, Egypt and Sudan, and with this move he presents itself to Italy as an enemy in open war or better still a pirate in total disregard of the law and diplomatic relations.
Haftar, considered an impostor in Tripoli, had to downsize his ambitions a lot after Turkey’s descent into the field, Ankara’s military support for the Al Sarraj government upsets the balance on the ground forcing Haftar’s forces and his international sponsors to a hasty retreat to the East. Now this move would like to blackmail Rome, it is not yet clear how, given that the liberation of the smugglers is an inadmissible request. It is certain that the Italian government from this affair must draw confirmation of the total hostility and unreliability of the Benghazi general.