Nearly 60,000 people had signed a petition by Saturday afternoon demanding that Italy drop criminal proceedings against German boat captain Pia Klemp and other crew members who have rescued thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.
In an interview with the Basler Zeitung daily on Friday, Klemp said that a trial against her was due to begin soon after she and some of her compatriots were charged in Sicily with assisting in illegal immigration.
She said that she was told by her Italian lawyer that she could be looking at "up to 20 years in prison and horrendous fines."
Klemp added, however, that she intended to fight the case up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, if she had to.
The 35-year-old Bonn native has been under investigation in Italy since her ship, the Iuventa, was impounded in the summer of 2017, and the government has moved to ban her from sailing around the Italian coast. According to German public broadcaster WDR, through the work on that ship and the Sea-Watch 3, Klemp has personally assisted in the rescue of more than 1,000 people at risk of drowning in unsafe dinghies as they attempted to cross to Europe in search of a better life.
An already immigrant-unfriendly government in Rome became even more so in June 2018, when newly appointed Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right League party promised a crackdown the likes of which modern Italy had never seen.
Since assuming office, Salvini has sought to put a stop to migrant rescue ships docking on Italian shores and disembarking refugees. In January, the nationalist leader made headlines with the forced evacuation of hundreds of asylum-seekers from Italy's second-largest refugee center and his refusal to clarify where the people, many of whom had lived in Castelnuovo di Porto for years and become integrated into town life, were being taken.
Shortly thereafter, Sicilian prosecutors ruled that Salvini could be charged with kidnapping more than 177 migrants left stranded on a ship he had ordered impounded.
'A yearslong show trial'
What frustrates Klemp the most, she told the Basler Zeitung, is that the costs — amounting to hundreds of thousands of euros — that she has had to prepare to cover from her own savings and some new donations "for what is likely to be a yearslong show trial" require money that could have been spent on rescue missions.
"But the worst has already come to pass," she said. "Sea rescue missions have been criminalized."
For this, the captain blames not only the Italian government but what she sees as a failure of the European Union "to remember its avowed values: human rights, the right to life, to apply for asylum, and the duty of seafarers to rescue those in danger at sea."
Klemp added that "demagogues" such as Salvini, former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer were effectively allowing thousands to perish in the Mediterranean each year.
She pushed back at criticism that rescue missions encouraged more people to attempt the highly dangerous crossing. "There are scientific studies that disprove the idea that sea rescues are a so-called pull factor," she said. "The people come because, unfortunately, there are so many reasons to flee." And if countries close their borders, "they come via the Mediterranean because there is no legal way to get here," she added.
To cover her potentially exorbitant legal costs, a bar in Bonn has announced a fundraising campaign to help Klemp. Cafe Bla has announced that for every patron who orders the "Pia beer," 50 euro cents will be donated to their former waitress.