Army refusal to release chronology of Lampedusa rescue delay, upheld

Information and Data Protection Commissioner says release of detailed chronology of events relating to the rescue of over 200 migrants at sea  in the tragic Lampedusa shipwreck, could “prejudice the conduct of an investigation of a possible breach of law”

Evidence exists from Italian naval officers of some form of delay between the rescue call made at 12:39pm, and the eventual safety mission launched at 3pm.
Evidence exists from Italian naval officers of some form of delay between the rescue call made at 12:39pm, and the eventual safety mission launched at 3pm.

The Information and Data Protection Commissioner (IDPC) has upheld a refusal by the Armed Forces of Malta to release a detailed chronology of events relating to the rescue of over 200 migrants at sea on 11 October 2013 – in which some 400 asylum seekers and refugees lost their lives in the tragic Lampedusa sinking.

The AFM refused the request on 30 December 2013, and again on 13 January 2014.

Prima facie evidence exists of some form of delay between the rescue call made at 12:39pm on 11 October, and the eventual safety mission launched at 3pm.

In his decision, Commissioner Saviour Cachia said that the information requested involved documents which, if disclosed could “to a great extent, affect Malta’s national security and defence and its international relations, particularly Italy.”

MORE Italy, Malta at fault over Lampedusa shipwreck that killed 200 - Amnesty

The IDPC said that such information could undermine “the AFM’s raison d’être which is ultimately that of defending the nation” and concluded that the documents requested were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

The IDPC also said that the release of the information could “prejudice the conduct of an investigation of a possible breach of law” and that should proceedings be instituted, it is in the interest of both the AFM and Malta’s standing that the information is classified.

“The interest of public safety… overrides the interest for request for information,” the IDPC said, adding that the information requested “could run counter to public interest” and that the public was deemed to be better served by non-disclosure.

Some 200 migrants presumed to have died in the Lampedusa shipwreck in 2013 could have been saved if Italian and Maltese authorities had not dithered over rescue operations, Amnesty International has claimed in a report.

Malta rescued 147 people, Italy picked up another 39, while the other passengers were never found. “It is reasonable to question whether Italy and Malta acted promptly and with all available resources to save the refugees and migrants and whether a delay in going to their rescue contributed to the shipwreck," Amnesty International said.

FOIA request

MaltaToday requested specific details on the chronology of the Lampedusa rescue, as effected by AFM, namely:

at what time did the AFM receive the Rome rescue call;

how many rescue calls did the AFM receive on 11 October, especially from Thuraya satellite phones from people on board the boat in distress;

at what time did the AFM dispatch its rescue assets;

whether any calls for merchant vessels were sent to answer the distress call;

at what time did the P-61 patrol boat leave Malta to effect the rescue mission and at what time did the AFM request Rome to assist it in the mission;

and whether the AFM asked Rome to effect the mission since the boat in distress was located closer to Lampedusa, and due to the proximity of the Italian naval asset Libra being already out at sea.

The AFM was also duty-bound to explain which could have possibly led to a two to three-hour delay on 11 October, which explanation may give insight into why the Italian coast guard did not carry out a faster and timelier rescue mission when it was first alerted to a boat in distress, leading to the death of 268 persons.

Since evidence exists from Italian naval officers of some form of delay between the rescue call made at 12:39pm, and the eventual safety mission launched at 3pm, an explanation on this matter alone was a matter of public interests.

A chronology of the events of the day as relayed by Admiral Felicio Angrisano to Italian weekly L'Espresso, revealed that the Italians offloaded the responsibility for the search-and-rescue mission to Malta, when an Italian naval asset - the ITS Libra - was closer to the boat in distress.

AFM submissions

The Armed Forces said that it was not in the army’s or national interest to “directly or indirectly be construed to be shifting blame on another EU member state with whom Malta collaborates on a number of fronts.”

It said that the exposure of its modus operandi could be utilised by third parties with illicit intentions, and that revealing the rescue request from Italy would reveal standard operating procedures.

The AFM also said that since judicial proceedings against Malta cannot be excluded “and the possibility of the same is a reasonable concern”, the army did not want to reveal more than was strictly necessary.

“The information requested is of a highly sensitive nature… and its divulgence would undoubtedly be cause of a serious prejudice to national and public interest.”

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