Italian prosecutors have secretly recorded hundreds of conversations between human rights lawyers and their clients in cases linked to allegations that NGOs operating lifeboats that saved thousands of people from drowning in the Mediterranean were complicit in human trafficking.
In a joint investigation with the Italian public broadcaster Rai News and the Domani newspaper, the Guardian saw documents from prosecutors in Trapani, Sicily, detailing private conversations between human rights lawyers and their clients, including a priest, and with journalists in whom confidential information has been discussed of ongoing trials, private sources and legal defense strategies at upcoming hearings.
Rescuers from charities such as Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières were indicted last month by prosecutors in Trapani after a four-year investigation into allegations of complicity with smugglers in Libya, which in 2017 led to the seizure of Iuventa, a former fisherman. ship managed by the German NGO Jugend Rettet (Youth Rescue).
The investigation was sharply criticized by human rights groups, but hailed by Italian far-right populists, who raged against NGO rescue boats as “sea taxis”.
The most serious case appears to be that of Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest in Rome who heads the refugee rights organization Habeshia and who was formally indicted by prosecutors in Trapani in November 2016 for encouraging the ‘illegal immigration.
Zerai, a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, was acquitted of the charges, but during the investigation dozens of conversations with his lawyer to discuss the case were recorded. Italian law prohibits the interception of conversations under investigation and their lawyers, whose relationship is governed by solicitor-client privilege.
The 30,000-page file seen by the Guardian reveals that Zerai was taped in August 2017 asking his lawyer to set up a meeting with Trapani’s senior prosecutor to explain his innocence and claiming that he believed some media were trying to discredit him. NGO work in the Mediterranean. . He was also recorded asking a senator, Luigi Marconi, to help him help hundreds of Eritreans evicted from a building in Rome.
“If I was bugged while speaking to my lawyer, it means that I was also bugged speaking with bishops, cardinals, Holy See employees and ambassadors,” said Zerai. “Where is the rule of law here? And it happened as people continued to drown in the sea.
The Italian Justice Ministry announced this week that it will “urgently carry out the necessary preliminary investigations” on prosecutors in Trapani following reports that journalists covering migration in the Mediterranean were recorded during conversations with rescuers and confidential sources.
Groups of journalists have described the move as one of the most serious attacks on the press in Italian history.
One of these journalists, Nancy Porsia, was recorded in conversation with her lawyer, Alessandra Ballerini, who also acts for the family of Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni, who was abducted and murdered in Cairo in 2016.
Porsia had her phone bugged for more than five months in 2017 by prosecutors in Trapani. Investigators also tracked his movements using geolocation data from his cell phone.
Her conversations with Ballerini which are transcribed in files seen by the Guardian include the lawyer revealing confidential information about a trip to Cairo in which she feared for her safety, and Porsia telling Ballerini that she was having trouble getting a visa for Libya due, she believed, in her investigations into the notorious suspected human trafficker and Libyan Coast Guard commander Abd al-Rahman Milad, known as Bija.
Porsia also expressed fear of being under investigation after police summoned her to a meeting in Rome, but Ballerini is heard to reassure her, explaining that they would not have summoned her if that had been the case. She tells him not to worry because their phone conversation is covered by the client’s privilege.
Investigators also secretly recorded the journalist’s conversations with two other lawyers, revealing their defense strategies in two other ongoing trials. Michele Calantropo, lawyer for Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, refugee accused in mistaken identity case of being one of the world’s most wanted human traffickers, Medhanie Yehdego Mered, was recorded asking Porsia to provide evidence as an expert witness on the dynamics. trafficking in people in North Africa.
Documents dated November 16, 2017 show prosecutors recording a phone call between Porsia and lawyer Serena Romano. At the time, Romano was involved in a lawsuit against suspected migrant boat drivers, in which Porsia was called to appear as an adviser to describe migrant trafficking. Trapani investigators listened to the defense strategy planned between the lawyer and Porsia and filed the transcript.
“These eavesdropping had to be stopped,” Calantropo told The Guardian. “They have no relevance to their investigation, let alone the fact that they are totally banned and violate the European Convention on Human Rights.”
The acting chief prosecutor of Trapani, Maurizio Agnello, said in a statement: “In anticipation of the conclusion of the investigations ordered by the public prosecutor’s office of Palermo and by the inspector general of the Ministry of Justice, to whom I sent a detailed report on this matter. , I think it is very timely and responsible for me not to participate in further discussions on this issue. “