European politicians accused of conspiring with Libyan coastguard to push back refugees

High-profile European politicians, including the EU’s former foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, Italy’s current and former interior ministers and the current and former prime ministers of Malta, have been named as the subjects of a criminal complaint at the international criminal court alleging they conspired with Libya’s coastguard to illegally push back refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.

The criminal complaint, which was submitted at The Hague by the German NGO the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), accuses the politicians of committing several “crimes against humanity in the form of the severe deprivation of physical liberty” between 2018 and 2021 by systematically intercepting boats in the Med and sending refugees back into detention in Libya.

The pushbacks began in February 2017 when the Italian government struck a deal with Libya, offering to fund, equip and train its coastguard to intercept and bring boats back to a country where aid agencies said they suffered abuse and torture.

A day later, the deal was approved by the European Council.

Marco Minniti, who was the Italian interior minister at the time of the deal, is among the individuals named in the complaint as co-conspirators behind the push-back scheme. Other individuals named as co-conspirators include Matteo Salvini, the far-right leader who served as interior minister in 2018-2019 and his then chief of staff, and Matteo Piantedosi, who is now interior minister.

Minniti told the Guardian: “I don’t know [about the] complaint. I will evaluate it, like the other interior ministers from 2017 until today. At the time, the agreement was signed by the Italian prime minister, [Paolo] Gentiloni, and his counterpart, [Fayez] al-Sarraj. So, from all the records, it appears that I am not the signatory.”

The deal proved successful at reducing migration, with the number of people arriving on Italy’s southern shores during the first half of 2018 falling 81% compared with the same period in 2017. The measure was renewed for a further two years in 2020 and again earlier this month for one year. The pact costs Italy €13m a year.

As part of its complaint the German human rights group has submitted evidence documenting 12 incidents where refugee boats were intercepted in the Mediterranean, including aerial photographs and intercepted radio calls that point to a collusion between European authorities and Libyan coastguards.

In one such radio call, dated 12 February 2020, an EU Frontex aircraft appears to contact Libyan coastguards about a boat, signing off with “mission complete” after it was intercepted.

“This deal is totally in line with the policy of the EU,” said Christopher Hein a professor of law and immigration policies at Luiss University in Rome. “It is a bilateral agreement, but it is supported and co-financed by the EU.”

Hein said “tens of thousands” of people had been intercepted and brought back to Libya since 2017, with 35,000 intercepted so far this year.

A spokesperson for Salvini declined to comment when approached by the Guardian. A spokesperson for Piantedosi said he could not comment on a legal complaint that he had not yet seen.

Malta’s current prime minister, Robert Abela, his predecessor, Joseph Muscat, the former high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy Federica Mogherini, and the former executive director of European border agency Frontex Fabrice Leggeri are also listed.

If The Hague was to accept the complaint, the listed politicians and officials could in theory become suspects in a criminal trial and be summoned to appear in front of the United Nation’s principal judicial organ.

While officials of EU agencies generally have immunity from legal proceedings for acts performed in their official capacity, an agreement between the ICC and the European Commission does allow for immunity to be waived in certain circumstances.