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[PRESS RELEASE] Ocean Viking detained on false declarations of erratic Libyan patrol vessels violating maritime law.


On 9 February 2024, the Ocean Viking received a detention order from Italian authorities under the Piantedosi Law, following the rescues of 261 persons in International waters off the coast of Libya. SOS MEDITERRANEE denounces this unjust and grave decision, the third detention in three months, contributing to the ever-worsening context of States disregard for maritime law and humanitarian conventions in the central Mediterranean.  

February 6 was a chaotic day in the central Mediterranean. In less than 12 hours, the Ocean Viking, a rescue vessel operated by SOS MEDITERRANEE in partnership with IFRC, witnessed repeated and severe violations of maritime and human rights conventions by EU-funded Libyan patrol vessels. At least three forced returns were witnessed, and two Libyan vessels used aggressive manoeuvres all day long, near Ocean Viking and near boats in distress, endangering the safety of all.

Rather than acting against the human rights and international maritime law violations of the Libyan vessels, the Italian authorities are criminalising a civil and humanitarian organisation respecting the Law of the Seas at all steps of its operations. As soon as the Ocean Viking arrived in the port of Brindisi, without hearing our crew members, Italian authorities presented a signed declaration of a 20-day detention and a 3,333€ fine, solely based on the false declarations of Libyan vessels that are daily returning people to a cycle of human rights abuse in Libya. SOS MEDITERRANEE crew didn’t have any chance to explain what really happened.

SOS MEDITERRANEE has countless proofs on the true chain of events of February 6: of interceptions by the Libyan vessels, their erratic, aggressive and dangerous manoeuvres, and of the rescues performed by our team. All of the four boats rescued by Ocean Viking were unseaworthy, overcrowded, exposed to all elements, none of the shipwrecked persons had lifejackets and there were additional aggravating factors of tension and danger during each operation. The first boat in distress with 110 persons onboard was found at the brink of breaking, the second had fuel spreading all over the deck, intoxicating the survivors. One person was found unconscious. The third one had water inside and was severely listing, and the last one was in a state of panic, due to the presence of Libyan patrol vessels, desperately requesting to be rescued by Ocean Viking and dangerously approaching our vessel, which could have caused it to capsize at any moment.

After the first rescue, the Italian authorities instructed Ocean Viking to assess other boats in distress. All the three other rescues were done in full transparency and coordination with the Italian authorities and the Libyan vessels on scene who gave greenlight to proceed.

Yet, when Ocean Viking was getting ready to assist one of the remaining boats in distress, the Libyan vessels on scene changed their mind and aggressively instructed our vessel to leave the scene. Knowing the unpredictable and dangerous behaviour of Libyan patrol vessels who shot at Ocean Viking and boats in distress on repeated occasions last year, and in fear of a new security incident, Ocean Viking followed the instructions and started to leave the scene. On one of the boats in distress panic broke out, people started yelling and risking their lives to reach Ocean Viking and prevent her from leaving. The driver of the boat threatened the people onboard, asking them to jump overboard to be rescued, as the situation was deteriorating by the second, Ocean Viking launched her fast rescue boats to perform the rescue. At the end of the rescue, the driver left the scene Heading South.

Having to justify the mere act of rescuing lives at sea makes no sense, neither moral nor legal. The Ocean Viking rescued 261 lives that were in extreme and imminent danger of death. Libyan patrol vessels are forcibly returning shipwrecked persons in Libya which is against the legal obligation to disembark them in a place of safety.  Yet, not only are they the ones who create chaos in the deadliest maritime route in the world, but they are also listened to and supported by European institutions, while those who do follow the duty to rescue lives at sea are being detained”, explains Soazic Dupuy, director of SOS MEDITERRANEE operations.

SOS MEDITERRANEE calls the European union to urgently stop criminalising civilian Search and Rescue NGO, cease funding Libyan Coastguard and redirect public fundings towards effective and rational search and rescue services.


Cover picture: Tess Barthes / SOS MEDITERRANEE