Priest accused of facilitating illegal immigration
Don Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest who for years lives in Italy and become a reference point for thousands of migrants in distress who are facing the journey to Europe, is among those under investigation by the Trapani Prosecutor’s Office as part of the investigation for aiding and abetting illegal immigration.
For almost 15 years, his was the only telephone number many migrants had to call for emergency assistance.
The investigation lead to the seizure last week of a boat run by German NGO Jugend Rettet, which is accused of having had direct contact with traffickers off the coast of Libya.
According to reports from two witnesses, the priest who received communications from migrants boarded on the traffickers’ rafts, reports the day, time and location of the boats to be rescued with members of NGO rescue ships.
Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, founder and President of Habeshia Information Agency, called it “migrant rescue”, a blog where he provides last-minute and life-saving information to any migrant trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, have been served with a notice from Trapani prosecutor team.
“I received a letter from the Trapani public prosecutor’s office on Monday informing me of the investigation,” Mussie Zerai said, insisting that he was innocent.
On a statement he released on his blog, the priest also said, “I can confirm with all conscience that I have nothing to hide and that I have always acted in full legality. Apart from the Trapani initiative…, I have not been called to any other venue to justify or in any way respond to my work in favor of refugees and migrants.”
“I received a lot of phone calls every day. I don’t know why, but my intervention has always been for humanitarian purposes,” he also adds.
The investigation, according to judicial environment, refers to alleged pressure carried out by the competent bodies responsible for rescue at sea.
“Before we even inform NGOs,” says the priest, “I always alerted the Italian and Maltese Coast Guard operational centers. However, I have never had direct contact with the Jugend Rettet ship involved in the Trapani Prosecution investigation, nor have I ever been part of the alleged “secret chat” of which some newspapers have alluded to: my communications have always been forwarded through a normal cell phone. All the reports are the result of requests for assistance that I have been directed not from boats leaving Libya, or at the time of sailing, but from offshore vessels off the coast of Africa, outside Libyan territorial waters.”
According to German daily news site Zeit.de, staff of the German NGO Jugend Rettet could face three years in prison for twice having “overstepped legal boundaries” during rescue missions in 2016 and 2017.
Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean Catholic priest from the Vatican’s Ethiopian College living in Rome, who has been implicated in facilitating and abetting trans-Mediterranean human smuggling following 2012 investigations by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
According to PACE’s report, Lives Lost in the Mediterranean: Who is Responsible?, Mussie allegedly served as a smuggling intermediary between the ‘captains’ of Italy-bound vessels and the Italian Coast Guard. Without his call, the migrants rescue was unlikely:
The “captain” had the phone, but nobody knew where he had got it from or who had added Father Zerai’s number to it. In a short conversation Father Zerai was informed that they were having problems…The Priest informed them that he would contact the Italian authorities to request assistance. Father Zerai subsequently contacted the Italian Coast Guard…
… However, in the meantime, the “captain” had thrown the compass and the satellite phone overboard when he thought the helicopter was going to rescue them. He explained that he did not want to be arrested for possession of the telephone and the compass. He feared that these items would be used as evidence of his involvement in a smuggling network….
If the captain is afraid of being implicated in smuggling, then how about Mussie Zerai, the man on the other side of the phone? What makes the coast guard willing to pick up the call from Mussie but not the captains themselves? Why does Mussie have this special monopoly? (SOURCE: The Traffic Racket: The Eritrean “Activists” (Part 1))