Italian police said Saturday they had arrested an Egyptian suspected of trafficking migrants across the Mediterranean during a trip that left seven people dead from hypothermia.
The suspect is accused of organising the dangerous crossing by a boat carrying 287 people from Libya. Most were suffering from the cold when they were rescued by the coast guard on January 25.
Police in the Sicilian city of Agrigento said in a statement that the ordeal on the overcrowded, 16-metre boat ended “with the death, by hypothermia, of seven Bangladeshi citizens, due to the inhumane conditions of the voyage.”
The 38-year-old suspect, who was identified through witness testimony of survivors, had already been sentenced for a 2011 people smuggling crime in Sicily, police said, without providing further detail.
Winter weather has not been a deterrent for migrants crossing the Mediterranean this year despite freezing temperatures and rough seas.
So far this year, some 10,570 migrants have reached Europe by sea, out of a total of 11,986, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Some 229 have died or gone missing in the attempt to reach the continent.
Italian police said Wednesday they have retrieved a Banksy work commemorating the victims of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks that was stolen from the Bataclan concert hall.
The work was an image of a girl painted on a door that was taken in 2019.
“We have recovered the door stolen in the Bataclan with a Banksy work portraying a sad young girl,” a senior Italian police officer told AFP in Teramo, adding the raid was conducted with French police.
Italian police arrested three people on Monday accused of the kidnap, torture and trafficking of migrants hoping to set sail from Libya to Europe.
Their accusers described a catalogue of abuse including the systematic rape of women and the murder of some migrants.
A 27-year old man from Guinea and two Egyptians, aged 24 and 26, were taken into custody in a detention centre in Messina, Sicily, after police gathered testimony against them from other migrants.
The arrested men had crossed the Mediterranean themselves, landing in Lampedusa before being transferred to Sicily.
Witnesses said the three ran a prisoners’ camp in a former military base in Zawyia in Libya, where those ready to attempt the perilous sea crossing were forcibly held until they could pay a ransom.
Those interviewed said they had been “beaten with sticks, rifle butts, rubber pipes, whipped or given electric shocks”, and had seen other prisoners die, police said.
They had also been refused water or medical attention for their wounds or for diseases contracted in the camp, they said.
Anyone unable to pay up was passed on to other traffickers “for sexual and/or work exploitation”, or was killed.
The testimonies were gathered from migrants spread in reception centres across Sicily and on the island of Lampedusa.
“All the women who were with us… were systematically and repeatedly raped,” one witness was quoted as saying.
“They gave us seawater to drink and, sometimes, hard bread to eat. We men were beaten to get our relatives to pay sums of money in exchange for our release,” he said.
“I saw the organisers shoot two migrants who had tried to escape”.
‘Shot for bread’
Another said he was “whipped by electrical wires. Other times I was beaten, even around the head”.
One survivor described how the electric shocks “made you fall to the ground unconscious”, adding that he had “personally witnessed many murders by electric shock”.
Some migrants died of hunger, according to another cited witness, who described seeing a jailer “shoot a Nigerian in the legs for having taken a piece of bread”.
Libya, despite being wracked by chaos and conflict since the 2011 uprising that killed the dictator Moamer Kadhafi, has remained a major transit route for migrants, especially from sub-Saharan Africa.
According to figures from the International Organization for Migration in July, at least 5,200 people are currently trapped in official detention centres in Libya, often in appalling conditions.
There are no figures for the number of people held in illegal centres run by human traffickers, who brutally torture them to try to extort money from their families.
Italy’s tough line on migrants arriving from North Africa, and European Union cooperation with the Libyan coastguard, has seen some of those attempting the crossing picked up at sea and returned to the chaos-wracked country.
The UN and aid groups have warned those returned face rampant human rights abuses in both official and illegal centres.
Italian Police on Saturday said they arrested a 30-year-old man suspected of abducting a British model in Milan and threatening to auction her online unless a ransom of $300,000 was paid.
A statement from the police said the 20-year-old Briton had arrived in Milan on July 10 for a reported photo shooting arranged through her agent.
She was allegedly assaulted and drugged when she arrived at the studio the next day, then placed in a car boot and taken to a small village near Turin where she was kept prisoner by Lukasz Pawel Herba, a British resident born in Poland, police said.
Herba freed her on July 17 and accompanied her to the British consulate in Milan.
During her detention, Herba had demanded the model’s agent pay $300,000 to avoid the model being sold online though no ransom appears to have been paid, police added.
15 Muslim migrants have been arrested by the Italian police, after they threw overboard, 12 Christians, following a religious clash on a migrant boat.
The men have been charged with multiple aggravated murder, motivated by religious hate.
They are said to have come from Cote d’ivoire, Senegal, Mali and Guinea, and were among the 105 people aboard the boat that left from Libya on Tuesday.
The Christians, thrown overboard, from mainly Ghana and Nigeria, are said to have drowned.
Those who survived on the boat, said they had resisted any attempt to be thrown overboard, leading them in some cases, to form a human chain.
The Italian police said that the boat was intercepted by an Italian navy vessel, which transferred the passengers to a Panamanian-flagged ship. That ship docked in Palermo on Wednesday, after which the arrests were made.
Almost 10,000 migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean have been rescued in recent days. Italy has called for more help from the EU to handle the crisis.
Meanwhile, another migrant boat has sank while on its way from Libya to Italy.
Authorities were able to rescue four survivors, one a Ghanaian, two Nigerians, and one Nigerien. They said the boat had at least 45 people aboard.