Two weeks ago, 18 Italian citizens were detained in Libya by forces loyal to putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar. The Italian citizens have been held in prisons “in a context of war.” At the hands of Haftar militias, their human rights are being brutally violated.
On Sept. 1, Haftar's militias intercepted and seized two fishing boats that departed from the Sicilian city of Mazara del Vallo – Antartide and Medinea – and arrested their crews on charges of violation of Libyan waters – the waters that Libya has claimed since 2005 in accordance with the Montego Bay Convention, which allows states to declare jurisdiction over an area of up to 200 nautical miles.
In the last 15 years, 50 boats have been seized, about 30 Italian fishermen have been arrested and many have been 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 Moammar Gadhafi fell in Libya, a civil war divided the country into two fronts fighting each other, supported by different regional powers: Namely, the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which is backed by Turkey, Qatar and ambiguously Italy, too, and Haftar, the Libyan warlord who is financed and armed mainly by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, France and Russia.
The issue of the arrested Italian fishermen, therefore, falls in a difficult context both on the internal Libyan level and the level of international relations, as the country has been hit by a massive crisis at home, while Italy, after a period of hesitation, has started supporting the GNA.
Geographically, too, Libya is divided into two parts with the western side under the control of the Tripoli government and the eastern side under the control of Haftar and his militias. The 18 Italian citizens were intercepted off the east coast and therefore are in the hands of Haftar's forces, with which interlocution at this time is very difficult or at least more onerous.
According to the Libyan press, in exchange for the freedom of the Sicilian fishermen, Haftar is demanding the release and repatriation of four Libyan citizens sentenced by the Court of Catania for the "Aug. 15 massacre" in which 49 migrants traveling on a boat lost their lives in 2015.
According to Italian justice authorities, 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.
The names of the four smugglers are Alaa Faraj al-Maghribi, Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Monsef, Tariq Jumaa al-Amami and Mohamed Essid. According to their family members, these four men had gathered at a demonstration in Libya’s Benghazi province to ask for the release of the migrants. The families say they are completely innocent and are, in fact, football players from the Ahli Benghazi club and Libyan Tahadi club seeking employment with German teams.
Catania Public Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro, when questioned by Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera about the exchange request, replied indignantly: “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. They blocked the door so they wouldn't get on deck – one of the most brutal episodes ever recorded.”
The request for exchange of prisoners, as understood by Haftar, makes it clear that the detention of the fishermen is, in reality, a real act of piracy against Italy.
The general in charge of eastern Libya's Cyrenaica illegally controls that area thanks to rivers of money, tons of weapons and mercenaries from the UAE, France, Russia, Egypt and Sudan, and with this move, he presents himself 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 imposter in Tripoli, had to downsize his ambitions considerably after Turkey's arrival on the field. Ankara's military support for the GNA government upset the balance on the ground, forcing Haftar's forces and his international sponsors to make a hasty retreat to the east.
Now with this move, Haftar forces would like to blackmail Rome, but it is not yet clear how, given that the liberation of the smugglers is an inadmissible request. Such an affair should confirm the total hostility and unreliability of the Benghazi general for the Italian government.
* Director of Italian online newspaper La Luce, laluce.news, member of the European Muslim Network
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