Prosecutors in Italy secretly recorded hundreds of conversations between human rights lawyers and their clients in cases related to allegations that NGOs operating rescue boats that saved thousands from drowning in the Mediterranean were complicit in people smuggling.
Source: The Guardian
Italian prosecutors secretly recorded human rights lawyers
Exclusive: hundreds of conversations with clients were wiretapped in cases relating to migrant rescue boats
In a joint investigation with the Italian public broadcaster Rai News and the newspaper Domani, the Guardian has seen documents from prosecutors in Trapani, Sicily, detailing private conversations between human rights lawyers and their clients, including a priest, and with journalists in which confidential information was discussed regarding ongoing trials, private sources and legal defence strategies in upcoming hearings.
Rescuers from charities including Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières were last month charged by the Trapani prosecutors after a four-year investigation into claims of complicity with people smugglers in Libya, which in 2017 had led to the seizure of the Iuventa, a former fishing vessel run by the German NGO Jugend Rettet (Youth Rescue).
The investigation was heavily criticised by human rights groups but welcomed by Italy’s 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 runs the refugee rights organisation Habeshia and was in November 2016 officially placed under investigation by prosecutors in Trapani for abetting illegal immigration.
Zerai, a Nobel peace prize candidate in 2015, was acquitted of the charges, but during the investigation dozens of conversations with his lawyer discussing the case were recorded. Italian law forbids the interception of conversations under investigation and their lawyers, whose relationship is governed by attorney-client privilege.
The 30,000-page file seen by the Guardian reveals Zerai was recorded in August 2017 asking his lawyer to arrange a meeting with the lead prosecutor in Trapani to explain his innocence and saying he believed some media were attempting to discredit the work of NGOs in the Mediterranean. He was also recorded asking a senator, Luigi Marconi, for assistance in helping hundreds of Eritreans evicted from a building in Rome.
“If I was wiretapped while talking to my lawyer, it means I was also wiretapped talking with bishops, cardinals, employees of the Holy See and ambassadors,” Zerai said. “Where is the rule of law here? And this took place while people continued to drown in the sea.”
The Italian justice ministry this week announced it was to “urgently carry out the necessary preliminary investigations” into the Trapani prosecutors following reports that journalists covering migration in the Mediterranean had been recorded in conversation with rescuers and confidential sources.
Journalist groups described the move as one of the most serious attacks on the press in Italian history.
One of those journalists, Nancy Porsia, was recorded in conversation with her lawyer, Alessandra Ballerini, who also acts for the family of the Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni, who was kidnapped and murdered in Cairo in 2016.
Porsia had her telephone bugged for more than five months in 2017 by prosecutors in Trapani. The investigators also tracked her movements using her mobile phone’s geolocation data.
Her conversations with Ballerini that are transcribed in the 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 difficulty securing a visa for Libya due, she believed, to her investigations of the notorious alleged human trafficker and Libyan coastguard commander Abd al-Rahman Milad, known as Bija.
Porsia also expressed her fear of being under investigation after police summoned her to a meeting in Rome, but Ballerini is heard reassuring her, explaining that they would not have summoned her if that was the case. She tells her not to worry because their telephone conversation is covered under client privilege.
Investigators also secretly recorded the journalist’s conversations with two other lawyers, revealing their defence strategies in two other ongoing trials. Michele Calantropo, a lawyer for Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, a refugee accused in a case of mistaken identity of being one of the world’s most sought-after human traffickers, Medhanie Yehdego Mered, was recorded asking Porsia to provide evidence as an expert witness on the dynamics of people smuggling in north Africa.
Documents dated 16 November 2017 show prosecutors recording a phone call between Porsia and the lawyer Serena Romano. At the time, Romano was working in a trial against alleged drivers of migrant boats, in which Porsia was called to appear as an adviser to describe the smuggling of migrants. Investigators in Trapani were listening in on the planned defence strategy between the lawyer and Porsia and filed the transcription.
“Those wiretaps had to be stopped,” Calantropo told the Guardian. “They have no relevance in their investigation, not to mention that they are totally outlawed and violate the European convention on human rights.”
Trapani’s acting head prosecutor, Maurizio Agnello, said in a statement: “In anticipation of the conclusion of investigations ordered by the general prosecutor’s office in Palermo and by the inspector general of the ministry of justice, to whom I sent a detailed report on this matter, I believe it is most opportune and responsible for me not to participate in any further discussions in this matter.”