Italy releases Tunisian fishermen accused of smuggling migrants
The boat of the fishermen, who come from Zarzis in southeast Tunisia, was carrying 14 people and heading towards the Italian island of Lampedusa last week when it was stopped.
The fishermen insist that while they were at sea on 30 August, they spotted a boat of migrants close to sinking, 20km away in Italian waters. They came to its rescue, helping migrants onboard. However they were later stopped by Italian authorities, and charged with facilitating illegal immigration.
Among the detained fishermen was Chamseddine Bourassine, the president of the Association of Fishermen in Zarzis and a local good samaritan known for saving migrants at sea. His supporters at home petitioned for him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his rescues.
Defence lawyers Leonardo Marino, Giacomo La Russa and Roberto Majorini said “the judges have confirmed that the arrest of our clients was a clear misapprehension. They cannot charge Bourassine for smuggling the very same migrants whom he had always rescued.”
Earlier this month, Bouraoui Limam, the Information and Communication Director of Tunisia Foreign Affairs Ministry demanded their release as anger over the fishermen's arrest brewed in their home country.
Five of the migrants were repatriated to Tunisia earlier this month, while the others, who are all under the age of 18, remained in a detention centre in southern Italy.
Under Italy's new far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, the country has taken on a harsh anti-immigration stance.
It routinely blocks boats containing migrants from the Mediterranean from docking at its ports, sparking frequent crises where migrant boats are stranded for weeks at a time.
A growing number of Tunisians seeking a better future are trying to cross the Mediterranean and enter Europe illegally.
In the first half of 2018, Tunisian authorities arrested 2,659 people for trying to cross the sea illegally, compared to 564 people during the same period last year.
Hundreds have drowned in a series of deadly shipwrecks in recent months - that latest on June 3 left 87 people dead.
Agencies contributed to this report.
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