(Milan) - The Libyan government should immediately end what appears to be a policy that allows shooting at boats carrying migrants from Libya to Italy, and Italy should stop participating in joint patrols with Libya, Human Rights Watch said today. The presence of Italian officials aboard vessels donated by Italy for interdicting migrants raises concerns about Italian responsibility for any potential violation of the right to life, even when Libyan authorities fire the shots, Human Rights Watch said.

According to press reports and the Italian government, Libyan personnel aboard a Libyan patrol boat with Italian Guardia di Finanza officers and technicians on board opened fire on an Italian fishing trawler on September 12, 2010. There were no casualties. Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni suggested that the Libyans "perhaps...mistook the fishing boat for a boat with illegal migrants." Libya has apologized to Italy for mistakenly opening fire on the vessel, which had no migrants on board. Both governments said they are investigating the incident.

"The Libyans and Italians appear to agree that it was a mistake to shoot at Italian fishermen, but imply that it's OK to shoot at migrants," said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director at Human Rights Watch. "The bullet-riddled boat shows a reckless use of potentially lethal force that would have been just as bad if it had actually targeted nonthreatening migrants."

The incident occurred about 30 miles off the Libyan coast in international waters. The patrol boat is one of six vessels Italy gave Libya under a 2009 agreement between the two countries that initiated joint Italian-Libyan patrols aimed at preventing sub-Saharan migrants from reaching Italy by sea.

According to a report in the Italian daily La Repubblica, the Interior Ministry said that Guardia di Finanza personnel aboard the vessel behaved in accordance with the cooperation agreement between Italy and Libya when they stayed below decks while the Libyans shot at the boat. The agreement prohibits Italian officers from participating directly in boat interceptions. The Italian government has said that shooting at boats falls "outside the scope" of the agreement's terms of engagement.

"This incident shows once again the dangers when an EU member outsources its border controls to third countries," Frelick said. "Italy should immediately end its agreement with Libya aimed at intercepting migrants trying to leave Libya."

Background
On May 14, 2009, Italy and Libya officially began joint naval operations aimed at stopping the flow of irregular boat migrants to Italy. Under the agreement, Italy donated six vessels - three "Bigliani" class coast guard cutters and three V.5000 class patrol boats - to Libya that Italy announced would be manned by mixed Italian and Libyan crews. Within a week, 500 boat migrants were summarily returned to Libya, resulting in a dramatic curtailment in the number of boats attempting the journey from Libya to Italy.

Even before the announcement of the May 2009 agreement, there was evidence that Libyan police may have shot at boat migrants. On May 4, 2009, Repubblica TV showed footage of men who appeared to be Libyan police brandishing and firing Kalashnikov AKMS assault rifles as they arrested migrants trying to board a boat.

A September 2009 Human Rights Watch report on migrant interdictions off the coast of Libya included the following account by "Pastor Paul," a 32-year-old Nigerian, about an incident that occurred on October 20, 2008:

We were in a wooden boat and Libyans in a [motorized inflatable] Zodiac started shooting at us. They told us to return to shore. They kept shooting until they hit our engine. One person was shot and killed. I don't know the men who did the shooting, but they were civilians, not in uniforms. Then a Libyan navy boat came and got us and started beating us. They collected our money and cell phones. I think the zodiac boat was working with the Libyan navy.