Eritrean priest responsible for saving thousands in Mediterranean accused of aiding illegal immigration

An Eritrean priest responsible for saving thousands of lives aboard migrant ships in the Mediterranean is being investigated by an Italian public prosecutor for aiding illegal immigration.

Father Mussie Zerai, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, is accused of illegally sending information about boats and landings to NGO rescue ships.

A rescue boat of the Spanish NGO Proactiva approaches an overcrowded wooden vessel with migrants from Eritrea, off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean.Giorgos Moutafis/Reuters

The investigation by a prosecutor in the Sicilian town of Trapani is linked to another charge against the German NGO Jugend Rettet, which is also accused of aiding illegal immigration because it rescues drowning migrants trying to reach Europe.

Zerai’s own NGO and blog called Habeshia serves as a lifeline for asylum seekers who can access advice and also relay their coordinates at sea which he then sends to the Italian or Maltese rescue centres.

In a statement on Tuesday he confirmed he had passed on details of desperate migrants ships to NGOs and rescue authorities but said his ‘interventions are aimed at saving human lives’.

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He said: ‘I can assert myself that I have nothing to hide and that I have always acted in the light and in full legality.

‘Apart from the Trapani initiative, which I have already informed my lawyer so that I can see and possibly contradict it, I have not been called to any other venue to justify or in any way respond to my work in favour of refugees and migrants.’

In his statement is also responds to allegations from the Eritrean government, of which he is a severe critic.

‘They comment on themselves: they are accusations of a dictatorial regime that has enslaved my country and does not tolerate any kind of opposition, pursuing even the minimal dissent with violence, imprisonment, abuses, slander. A regime – have denounced two reports of the UN after years of investigation in 2015 and 2016 – which has ruled terror, forcing thousands of young people every year to abandon their home to seek shelter across the border.’

Eritrean priest Mussie Zerai met Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, September 30, 2015.Reuters

The UNHCR estimates around 5,000 Eritreans have entered Europe illegally by crossing the Mediterranean in 2017 alone with a total of ‘sea arrivals’ landing in Italy and Greece this year topping 117,000.

Zerai previously rose to prominence when he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago.

His work began in 2003 when he gave his number to a journalist who needed help translating Eritreans stories from a detention centre in Libya.

The number spread and was scrawled on the wall of a Libyan prison with Zerai becoming a crisis support line as he was called by migrants from inside trucks in the Sahara desert and from boats taking on water in the sea.

Zerai met Pope Francis at a conference on human trafficking in 2015. ‘He told me – have courage father, keep going,”‘he told the Daily Telegraph.

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