International investigation into state massacres in the Ionian Sea

Between the Steccato di Cutro massacre and the shipwreck of the fishing boat that sank on June 14 in the Ionian Sea, 45 miles southwest of Pilos, albeit in the diversity of the dynamics of the events, there are common elements that must be investigated internationally, and at the European level.[This must be done] before national authorities turn away witnesses and disperse the evidence of their responsibility, focusing all the general attention on the arrests of the alleged boatmen. Unlike in Italy to date, when it comes to investigating search and rescue activities conducted by military bodies in Greece, institutional responsibility has never been established. But even in Italy, it is becoming increasingly difficult, as is confirmed by the court hearings in the Salvini trial in Palermo.

Meanwhile, the large dIport vessel that had transferred the survivors to the port of Kalamata was allowed to depart with the removal of important witnesses to the events. It remains unclear why the barge, coming from Tobruk and bound for Italy, passed so close to the Peloponnese coast. The vessel’s route could be explained by the long-known fact that in the case of such large vessels, the boatmen pass within a few dozen miles of the Greek coast while remaining in international waters well beyond the 12-mile limit from the coast, in order to relinquish command of the barges to some desperate person and flee to land, so as to get away with all the money they have collected.

In both cases, with the passing of the hours, there is a growing gap between the first official versions and what was stated by the survivors, and today, in the case of Cutro even with the first investigations by the investigating judiciary. A gap between official statements and the reality of the facts leads one to strongly doubt the veracity of the versions provided in Greece by the Coast Guard and in the case of Cutro by the Guardia di Finanza, the Coast Guard, and the Ministry of the Interior. From the first investigative findings of the Prosecutor’s Office investigating the February 26 massacre, it even appears that at least one of the patrol boats that “were being forced to return” due to worsening weather conditions had in fact never left port. Now it will no longer suffice to place all the responsibility on the boatmen, or on the shipwrecked people themselves who allegedly “refused” rescue or concealed their presence. This is the same accusation made after the Steccato di Cutro massacre, and taken up today by the Greek coast guard to justify the failure and, in the end, delayed rescue effort. As UNHCR Central Mediterranean representative Vincent Cochetel said, “This boat was unseaworthy & no matter what some people on board may have said, the notion of distress cannot be discussed.” The notion of distress, which requires immediate rescue action, in other words, cannot be discussed between castaways and rescuers. People must still be made safe, including the throwing of life jackets, and transshipped as quickly as possible. As NGOs do, even if they are accused of intervening too early, when the boats would still be in “good seaworthy condition.” Perhaps with the same overloading that helped produce the latest carnage.

From the accounts of survivors who disembarked in the Greek port of Kalamata, it has been reported that the shipwrecked people had not at all rejected the assistance offered by the Greek Coast Guard, who had on the contrary – according to the statements of some survivors – had hooked the fishing boat with a rope and attempted to steer it away from the Greek coast, perhaps toward the Maltese SAR zone. A video of the survivors’ statements, filmed by a Greek parliamentary delegation, makes future retractions, induced perhaps by the promise of a faster transfer to the countries of Northern Europe, the real destination of many of the migrants who set sail from Tobruk to reach Italian shores, scarcely credible. After all, it is a regular practice for the Greek Coast Guard to dock barges loaded with migrants in the Aegean Sea and abandon them after towing them to the Turkish coast. However, in the Ionian Sea these towing operations are more complex, the distances greater, and the probability of shipwreck due to the lurching of the towed barge in severely overloaded conditions becomes a certainty. According to some sources (ANSA), the shipwreck occurred 60 miles off the Greek coast; if this is true, [this is] even closer to the edge of the Maltese SAR zone. Even if the towing had occurred toward the Greek coasts, it would still have resulted in the sinking of such a loaded vessel. An independent investigation is needed into these circumstances, which may have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people. And a political assessment that goes beyond criminal proceedings [is also needed]. The practice of entrusting commercial vessels, which also need to be involved, with search and rescue activities, delaying the deployment of naval and military air arrangements, has already produced too many victims.

In the case of both the Cutro massacre and this latest shipwreck, the first sightings were made – at 9:47 a.m. on June 13 [for the latest shipwreck] – by air equipment deployed in Frontex’s Operation Themis, which transmitted the alerts to the International Coordination Center, which then alerted the national coordination centers. From there, search and rescue operations should have been launched immediately, but instead they started several hours late, activities coordinated by the MRCCs or JRCCs (Coast Guard Coordination Centers or Joint Search and Rescue Centers), which are not the result of “agreements” with shipwrecked people that “allow” them to be rescued, but activities due by states, to fulfill their rescue obligations enshrined in international conventions. Like Italy, Greece and Malta that make use of Frontex operations, and include them in their law enforcement activities (countering irregular immigration) in international waters falling within the SAR (search and rescue) zone of their competence, assuming operational responsibility for them, are also required to comply with European Regulation No. 656 of 2014, which makes obligatory for all state agents the rescue obligations established by the Conventions of the international law of the sea, stated by the IMO IAMSAR Manual, and transferred, in the case of Italy, in the 2020 National SAR Plan.

In the case of the Steccato di Cutro massacre, it seems peculiar that Frontex credited in its communiqué the first version of events provided by the Guardia di Finanza, according to which two patrol boats went out to sea and then found themselves forced to return due to bad weather conditions. Instead, it appears that on that night the same patrol boats remained anchored in port. This is an obscure aspect that is being investigated by the Italian judiciary, but which Frontex, if it shared false news with a communiqué, should also account for at the European level. All the more reason for an investigation at the international level.

Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo