Refugee rescue ships Bonn woman may face prison sentence for Mediterranean rescues

BONN · Pia Kemp of Bonn was captain of the rescue ship “Sea-Watch 3”, working with crew members to rescue several thousand refugees from the Mediterranean Sea. Now she is facing a possible prison sentence in Italy.

Pia Klemp wanted to save people's lives, but now she's threatened with imprisonment in Italy. The Bonn woman spent months as a captain on two different rescue ships of aid organizations in the Mediterranean. During her time at sea, she and her crew pulled several thousand refugees from the water. In June last year, however, Klemp learned that the Italian authorities were investigating her and other volunteers from various ships. At the same time, her lawyer advised her to leave the ship. If she were to bring another refugee ashore, she would be threatened with pre-trial detention.

The Italian public prosecutor's office accuses the 35-year-old of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Non-governmental organizations such as the Berlin-based "Sea-Watch" - whose ship waited with refugees for two weeks off the coast of Malta - are more frequently confronted with criticism that they are making it easier for smugglers. In the case of Klemp and some of her colleagues, however, the Italian investigators have gone one step further: the crew is even accused of colluding with smugglers. "There are photos which are supposed to prove that we brought boats back to the Libyan coast, so the smugglers could use them again," Klemp told GA. In truth, the photos were taken off the coast of Malta.

Klemp grew up in Bonn

Klemp, who grew up in Bonn, studied biology for a few semesters and has been sailing for ten years, first signed on to the rescue ship "Iuventa" in 2017. One month later, however, the ship was confiscated by Italy. By then, the crew had rescued more than 14,000 people since 2016. After the ship had been confiscated, it turned out that the crew had been monitored by Italian law enforcement authorities for months. The bridge was wiretapped and telephones were bugged.

At that time, however, it was not yet known that individual crew members were under investigation. So a short time later, in September 2017, Klemp went to work on the "Sea-Watch 3". About nine months later Klemp found out about the investigation - and then returned to Germany on the advice of her lawyer.

If an indictment is filed in Italy in the next few months, which Klemp's Italian lawyer says is very likely, the woman from Bonn could face 5 to 20 years imprisonment in the worst case. "This won't be a normal criminal trial," she says, "but a politically motivated show trial." The mood has changed with the new Italian government.

At the end of last year, the immigration law was tightened up. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini now wants to enforce what he promised in the election campaign. Non-governmental organizations should be deterred from starting further missions. "Two years ago it was much easier," says Klemp. "Then it took longer and longer for us to be assigned a port where we could dock."

The 35-year-old can very well understand the situation for the crew of "Sea-Watch 3", which has been off the coast of Malta for the past two weeks. Since Christmas, the crew and that of another ship have tried to get permission to moor in a European port, but they have been unsuccessful. "Some friends of mine were on board, we also had email contact," Klemp says.

In such a situation the crew tries to keep the refugees up to date and make no false promises, Klemp explains. She has been in a similar situation, but only for three days. "The situation is also a burden for the crew.” The refugees are mostly traumatized, the mood can change at any time and turn against the crew. Many people, like now on the "Sea-Watch 3", are seasick and have to vomit for days on end, crammed together with so many people in a confined space for days and days.

Refugee helpers complain of the arbitrariness of authorities

Aid organizations criticize that sea rescuers are increasingly at the mercy of the authorities. There is the threat of a trial against Klemp and 20 crew members of other ships, but also one against Claus-Peter Reisch, captain of the Dresden “Lifeline” rescue ship. His case concerns the fact that the ship, which was sailing under the Dutch flag, was allegedly not properly registered.

"We had registered the ship as a sports boat," explains Axel Steier, Chairman of the Mission Lifeline Association. "You can do that in the Netherlands with any boat that isn't used commercially." But the Maltese authorities apparently had problems with that. Steier is flying to Malta this week to testify at the trial. But the association will not be intimidated by this, Steier explains. Even if the ship has been confiscated, they are planning further missions with yachts of European yacht owners this spring.

At the same time, charges could be brought against the Bonn captain. Klemp is currently visiting friends in Berlin, doing public relations work and collecting donations for the upcoming trial. She cannot currently work or go to sea because she has to prepare herself for the trial in terms of content. She wants to testify and make it clear that she and her crew members have done nothing illegal.

On the website, Pia Klemp reports on current developments in sea rescue and collects donations for the upcoming trial.

(Orig. text: Nadine Klees; Translation: ck)

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