Tunisians have protested the arrest of six local fishermen by the Italian authorities over allegations of smuggling across the Mediterranean, BBC News reported.
Dozens of Tunisians gathered outside the Italian embassy in Tunis yesterday, organised by Tunisian NGO La Terre pour Tous (World for All), to protest the detention of several Tunisians who claim they rescued a group of migrants at sea and attempted to deliver them to the authorities.
The fishermen, who orginate from the eastern coastal town of Zarzis, include among them Chamseddine Bourassine, president of the Zarzis Association of Fishermen in the town. Bourassine is also known for saving migrants and bringing human remains caught in his nets back to shore to give the often anonymous dead a dignified burial.
The men have maintained that they rescued 14 migrants on board a boat after its engine broke down on 29 August. The story has been backed by the migrants on board; Mohamed Murad, 22, told reporters that the engine on the boat stopped working, and they were “floating in the middle of the sea and there were children with us crying… it was a situation you couldn’t even imagine”.
Murad says that Bourassine and his fellow fishermen found them, gave them food and after failing to persuade the migrants to return to Tunisia, said they would try to contact the Italian authorities.
“He [Bourassine] tugged us a little further where the Italian coastguard can find us, and it was at a time when our boat would have only lasted for a short time and capsized and we would have died … then the Italian coastguard came and took us.”
The fishermen were subsequently detained alongside the migrants and charged with smuggling offences, which can warrant a sentence of 15 years if convicted.
Murad condemned the fishermen’s arrest, stating that Bourassine and his colleagues should be “honoured” for preventing the deaths of 14 people.
Bourassine is known as an advocate for dissuading young Tunisians from illegal migration. In 2015 he participated in a sea rescue drill organised by Doctors Without Borders in Zarzis and has rescued thousands of people.
The Italian coastguard has doubted the story given, stating that it has no record of a call being made to the Italian authorities either by the fishermen or the migrants.
This is not the first time Italy has arrested fishermen; in 2007 the authorities held a four year trial after police arrested two Tunisian fishermen for allegedly having guided 44 migrants into Italian waters. Both men were eventually acquitted of all criminal charges.
Italy has cracked down on migrants attempting to travel from North Africa to Europe via the Mediterranean. The country’s new populist government has vowed to tackle the migration crisis, and has given aid to Libyan authorities to round up refugees and prevent them from travelling to Europe, despite detained migrants being at risk of beatings, abuse, rape and slavery.