Criminal prosecution


Spain has never taken to the dock any human rights defender”, claims the socialist member of the European Parliament López Aguilar from his office in Strasbourg. The Spanish National Court closed Maleno’s case in 2016. However, the Spanish Police sent four reports to Morocco so in 2017 this country accused her of human trafficking and aiding and abetting ilegal immigration for having alerted the rescue services. Two years later, her case was reopened. Apart from the stigmatisation and the damage caused to the Spanish defender, the investigation could have led to life imprisonment outside the EU.

Juan Fernando López Aguilar

Member of the European Parliament

E Read interview

The charge of human trafficking, in some cases with the aggravating circumstance of danger to life, is a constant in the prosecution of defenders. From Spain to Belgium or Italy, cases like the ones of Helena Maleno, Anouk Gerder or Katrin Schmidt show how defending human rights entails legal processes that, sometimes, can become ridiculous. 

In August 2017, seven policemen armed with guns and bulletproof vests burst into Anouk Van Gestel’s place, the Belgian defender who a few days before had hosted Moha, a sub-Saharan homeless boy who was living in the Maximilien Park of Brussels. Even though the Belgian law does not prosecute non-profit solidarity, the case against this journalist, together with three other hosts and nine migrants, was exploited politically by the far-right, as her lawyer argued in court. 

It is not an isolated case. In August 2017, the Iuventa ship was left stranded in the port of Trapani while its crew was waiting for the trial for human trafficking. It was not until December 2021 that the legal team of the four members of the crew who were accused, including Katrin Schmidt, had access to their charges. This period left them defenceless and unable to use their ship, which has been exposed to the bad weather since then. Katrin is now part of another ship that rescues people in the Mediterranean. In order to continue with her rescue work, she moved from Burriana, a small town on the Spanish coast, to Turkey. She is aware of her privileges. “I don’t want to think about it. They accuse us of having a European passport, German in my case, so we don’t talk about the true heroes: the people who just want to save their lives and who suffer from human rights violations not only in the sea but also when they arrive in Spain or Turkey.” The defender says this in a port full of rescue ships with different European flags that are waiting to set sail, such as the Open ArmsSea Watch or Louise Michel, of which she is part now. 

The use of the anti-mafia law in the case against Katrin and the other three members of the Iuventa crew caused outrage in Italy. “This investigation has its own features: it is, probably, the first one in Italy against rescue services in the Mediterranean, and the last one to be resolved. It has great difficulty due to the amount and level of interceptions, where the right to translation of documents for the non-Italian defendants was not guaranteed, and to the use of anti-mafia law, a very sensitive issue for the Italian public opinion.”, says the lawyer Francesca Cancellaro from Bologna.

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