On 1 September, the Libyan coast guard stopped and seized two boats 35 miles off the coast of Benghazi. Eighteen people were on board the Antartide and Medinea fishing vessels, including eight Italians, six Tunisians, two Indonesians and two Senegalese nationals.
After their arrest they were transferred to Benghazi, a region in eastern Libya controlled by warlord and self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) leader Khalifa Haftar. They have been detained there ever since.
According to international law, foreign ships are forbidden from fishing within 12 nautical miles of any country’s territorial waters, with the Mazara Del Vallo boats well outside of that limit.
However, in 2005 former dictator Muammar Gaddafi unilaterally extended Libya’s territorial waters to 74 miles, a move never accepted by the European Union. Ever since, the Libyan coastguard has enforced this arbitrary extension, with dozens of fishermen attacked or detained in recent years in the contested waters.
Italy has never recognised Libya’s unilateral declaration of its maritime borders and the country’s navy has attempted to ensure the free exercise of fishing activities in international waters, thwarting multiple attempts by the Libyan coastguard to seize Italian vessels.
While discouraging fishing boats from working in the contested area, the Italian navy has not officially prohibited fishing there, as any such declaration could be construed as an indirect recognition of Libya’s maritime claims.
Although the recent capture of the Italian vessels is not new, it is complicated by political dynamics in the Libyan civil war, and the fact that the fishermen are held by one of two rival governments.
“We talked for three minutes with our husbands. But we can’t take it anymore, we want them to come back home,” Cristina, the wife of Salvo Bernardo, one of the fishermen detained in Libya, told The New Arab.
“We are helpless because we cannot help them directly. Italian authorities said that negotiations are complex, and they don’t know how long it will take. After 90 days we lose hope sometimes but then we find it again. I hope they return home because this has become a surreal situation,” she added. “Our men found themselves at the wrong time, not in the wrong waters,” she said, referring to the Libyan conflict.
On the same day that the fishermen were arrested, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio arrived in Libya for a meeting with Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), to back a recent ceasefire initiative and ensure Rome’s support for an inclusive political solution to the conflict.
Following a year-long but ultimately abortive attempt by Haftar to seize Tripoli, the two sides signed a formal truce deal in October, pumping new life into UN-led efforts for a political solution to the conflict.
However, the 18 fishermen have now become political leverage for Haftar, with the LNA leader reportedly seeking to use them as part of a prisoner swap for four Libyan footballers convicted of human trafficking and murder in 2015 following a deadly shipwreck off the Italian coast.
Di Maio has vowed that Italy will not be “blackmailed” and the foreign minister has reportedly called on Haftar’s backers, including Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to intervene in negotiations for their release.
While relatives of the Libyan footballers have demonstrated in Benghazi since their arrest, there has also been a growing public protest movement in Italy to pressure authorities to ensure the release of the fishermen. Some relatives have chained themselves to the Italian Chamber of Deputies in Rome, while last month Pope Francis weighed in on the stand-off to express support for the detained men.
“The main problem is that an unrecognised Libyan government is holding 18 people and we don’t know almost anything about them,” Italian lawyer Carola Matta, who has been appointed to nominate a Libyan defence lawyer for the fishermen, told The New Arab. “There are no scheduled phone calls between the fishermen and their families.”
Nearly 90 days after their arrest, informal negotiations have proved futile. In late November, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to discuss bilateral relations, the Eastern Mediterranean and an ongoing investigation into the murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni. They also discussed the detention of the fishermen, with Conte reportedly asking Sisi to pressure Haftar for their release.
With the LNA seeking international recognition, some observers believe Haftar is using the possibility of a prisoner swap to obtain political recognition from Rome. But while Libya is a foreign policy priority for Italy, it has pursued a counterproductive strategy in attempting to balance relations with rival parties in the conflict, complicating the current crisis.
Although formally supporting the GNA, Italy has also sought to establish connections with Haftar, backing a political role for the LNA leader at the Palermo Conference in 2018. Earlier this year in January, however, Italy faced a diplomatic disaster after Conte was snubbed by al-Sarraj, with the GNA leader refusing to meet him after discovering Haftar had also been invited to Rome.
Around the same time, foreign minister Di Maio also found himself isolated at a meeting in Cairo with Egypt, Greece, France and Cyprus, refusing to sign a final communique on Libya which he claimed was too biased in favour of Haftar. Both incidents cast doubts on Italy’s ability to play a proactive role in resolving the Libyan crisis.
Nevertheless, Italy wants to continue economic relations with Libya that were interrupted by the civil war and seeks a key position for oil and gas company Eni, which plays a strategic role in the energy sector of Mediterranean countries.
Tensions between Haftar and Italy are still at an early stage, with negotiations over the release of the 18 fishermen kept secret to guarantee a chance of success. Defence attorneys in Italy have already appealed to the Supreme Court to review the trial of the four detained Libyan footballers, but Rome can do little to facilitate the process.
In an apparent bid by Libyan authorities to up the ante, an image of drugs laid out in front of one of the fishermen’s seized vessels began circulating in the Italian press in late September. The nature of any potential trial and the charges against them will now be the next step for the Italian government to decide on a strategy to ensure their release.