After saving them in the Mediterranean Sea, a ship’s Captain who turned over 101 migrants to the Libyan coastguard has been sentenced to a year in prison in Italy’s first such instance. According to a copy of the judgment seen by AFP on Friday, Giuseppe Sotgiu, the Captain of the ship, was convicted of violating international norms that prohibit the forcible return of people to countries where their lives are in danger.

On July 30, 2018, he was steering the Asso 28, an Italian-flagged offshore tanker supplying oil installations off the coast of Libya when he was rescued. The migrants, five pregnant women, and five minors were rescued from an unseaworthy dinghy in international waters and handed over to the Libyan coastguard in Tripoli.

International rescue organizations told Al Jazeera that, while the sentence is a “start in the right direction,” it punishes one man while failing to address the duty of Libya and European Union governments.

“If you condemn a person for handing migrants to [the Libyan coastguard], you are putting into question the legitimacy of that authority,” Giorgia Linardi, the spokeswoman in Italy for the German non-governmental organization Sea Watch, told Al Jazeera.

Sotgiu handed 101 migrants to the Libyan coastguard after rescuing them in the Mediterranean Sea [File: Taha Jawashi/AFP via Getty Images]

Italy and the EU have specially funded and trained Libya’s coastguard to stem the flow of migrants. Members of Sea Watch witnessed Libyan maritime authorities chasing and shooting at a crowded migrant boat in July, ostensibly to prevent it from crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Linardi welcomed the decision to emphasize that returning refugees to Libya is a crime. However, he pointed out that the same principle is not applied to European states helping with the so-called Libyan coastguard. The court now has 90 days to issue its decision, including more information on the line of command that led to Sotgiu’s decision to return the migrants to Libya.

The Captain, who can appeal the verdict, is unlikely to face actual jail time due to the decision. “It’s vital to emphasize the captain’s duty, but whoever gave that order should also be penalized,” Linardi added. Prosecutors in Italy claimed they had notified no evidence of a marine department in Sabratha or maritime rescue coordination centers in Italy or Libya.

It’s unclear whether the Italian coastguard had any say over Sotgiu’s activities. Mare Nostrum, Italy’s rescue mission, was stopped down in 2014 and has not been replaced. The Italian coastguard occasionally requests private ships to assist migrants in distress.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has also lauded Thursday’s verdict as a significant step at a time when non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rescuing migrants at sea are under investigation. Save the Children, MSF, and the German organization Jugend Rettet were investigated earlier this year for suspected facilitating illegal immigration. MSF called one of a series of attempts to criminalize maritime rescues.

Frauke Ossig, MSF’s search and rescue spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that people needed to understand that “Libya is not a place where individuals can be taken back to safety.”

Ossining expressed hope that the verdict will allow non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to conduct rescue missions freely in the future. “European states must respect the sentence and realize that sending migrants back to Libya constitutes refoulement and a crime under international law,” Ossig added.

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