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German boat captain faces 20 years in prison for saving refugees

SICILY, Italy: A German boat captain is set to stand trial in Italy for her rescue of more than 1,000 stranded refugees in the Mediterranean Sea.

Pia Klemp, a 35-year-old Bonn native, was charged in Sicily with assisting in refugees before her boat was impounded in 2017. She has been accused of helping to rescue more than 1,000 refugees at risk of drowning as they attempted to cross to Europe in search of safety mainly from war-torn Syria.

“Sea rescue missions have been criminalised,” Klemp told media persons. The government has also banned her from sailing around the Italian coast. She accused Italian authorities of organising “a show trial”.

The captain said her actions and those of other rescue boats in the Mediterranean are completely legal and protected by the 1982 United Nations (U.N.) Law of the Sea.

Nearly 60,000 people had signed a petition by Saturday afternoon demanding that Italy drop criminal proceedings against Klemp and other crew members who saved thousands of people from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

Klemp said a trial against her was due to begin soon after she and some of her compatriots were charged in Sicily for their rescue mission. She said that she was told by her Italian lawyer that she could be looking at “up to 20 years in prison and horrendous fines”.

Klemp said she would fight the case up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, if she had to.

The leader of Italy’s right-wing party, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, has played a significant role in changing the tone in the country. Salvini has refused to allow humanitarian ships carrying migrants rescued at sea to make port in Italy.

Salvini, who has attracted the admiration of European far-right leaders for his anti-immigrant, anti-Islam stances, makes a show of dismissing extremist labels and the existence of fascist ideology on the Italian political spectrum.

Since the Syrian civil war officially began on March 15, 2011, families have suffered under a brutal conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, torn the nation apart, and set back the standard of living by decades. About 13.1 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance. The Syrian civil war has caused 5.6 million people to flee while another 6.2 million people are displaced within Syria. Half of the people affected are children.

The United Nations estimates that more than 400,000 people have died, while other sources place the death toll at over 500,000.