Alessandro Fucarini  /  AP
The German aid ship had wandered the Mediterranean for three weeks with African asylum-seekers aboard before it was granted permission to dock in the Sicilian harbor of Porto Empedocle on Monday.
updated 7/13/2004 6:11:06 PM ET 2004-07-13T22:11:06

The arrest of three officials of an international aid ship that disembarked 37 Africans on the Sicilian coast provoked an outcry Tuesday, with politicians, aid groups and the Vatican saying the move violated humanitarian principles.

The ship run by the German aid agency Cap Anamur had been stranded at sea since June 20. On Monday, after weeks of debate over who should accept the Africans, the ship won permission to dock in Sicily.

Italian authorities immediately arrested the ship’s captain, its first mate and the head of the aid agency. Prosecutors say they aided illegal immigration.

Police said some of the Africans are from Ghana and Nigeria but lied and said they came from Sudan’s troubled Darfur region, which the United Nations has described as having the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

“The captain and the ship owner could not ascertain the origin of the 37 immigrants rescued in the Mediterranean and they just took note of what was said to them,” said defense lawyer Salvatore Filippini La Rosa, according to the ANSA news agency.

In Germany officials expressed dismay at the arrests. A spokeswoman of the Foreign Minister in Berlin said an official was sent to Sicily “to provide consular support for those involved.”

“Humanitarian actions must not be criminalized,” said a joint statement from Germany’s federal Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul and Harald Schartau, the economics minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the Cap Anamur organization is based.

Vatican defends rescue
The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said Tuesday that “carrying out the duty of rescuing people, whatever their nationality, always takes priority.”

“Political reasoning ... can come later,” it said.

In Italy, aid group Arci called for the release of the three and said the Africans should be granted asylum. “The government’s behavior is despicable,” said Filippo Miraglia, the head of Arci’s immigration unit.

The center-left opposition was quick to attack the government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi, which in the past has passed legislation aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.

“Here is where democracy ends,” said Calogero Miccicche, a Greens deputy from Sicily. He accused Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu of carrying out “illegitimate actions.”

Refugees may seek asylum
The 37 Africans, who were transported to a holding center in Agrigento, were expected to apply for asylum in Italy. Italy may deport them if the requests are turned down. An official in Agrigento said checks were continuing to ascertain their nationality, and said that no decision had been made.

The Cap Anamur aid group is better known outside the country as German Emergency Doctors Union. Started in 1979 to help Vietnam’s refugees, the agency has expanded its operations and runs projects in Afghanistan and African countries.

Cap Anamur official Bernd Goeken said the organization came across the 37 men by chance on June 20. One of its ships had just finished dropping off supplies in Africa and was on its way back to Germany when it experienced engine problems and stopped in Malta.

Adrift for three days
As it was testing the engines, it found the refugees in a broken-down boat near the Italian island of Lampedusa. The refugees had been on their small boat for three days, then spent three weeks on the Cap Anamur.

Thousands of illegal immigrants arrive in Italy every year, often hoping to travel to other European Union countries. Many tragedies have occurred when rickety immigrant boats sank before reaching the long Italian coastline.

The three people arrested were the ship’s captain, Stefan Schmidt, the German organization’s head, Elias Bierdel, and first mate Vladimir Dachkevitch, a Russian. A hearing to decide whether they must remain in detention was scheduled for Thursday.

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