Anger in Tunisia after Italy arrests fishermen known for saving migrants at sea

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Hundreds of Tunisians protested the arrest of six Tunisian fishermen in Italy after they were accused of smuggling hundreds of migrants and refugees over the years.

The men were arrested at sea after their fishing trawler had been towing a small boat that carried 14 migrants onboard, who the fishermen say were struggling to get to safety.

The migrants were delivered to a spot that is almost 40 kilometers away from the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Little did the fishermen know that an airplane crew from the European border agency Frontex had been monitoring, and later alerted the Italian police who arrested all crew members at sea, according to Italian authorities.

The Tunisians say that they saw a migrant vessel in distress, and collectively agreed to deliver it to safety. They also claim that they called the Italian coastguard so that it could intervene and take them to shore, according to their lawyers.

Prosecutors accused the men of smuggling the boat into Italian waters, and they found no evidence to prove that the fishermen called the Italian coastguard.

Among the six Tunisian men was Chamseddine Ben Ali Bourassine, known in his city, Zarzis, for saving migrants and bringing back human remains of the dead to bury them properly, according to the Guardian.

Hundreds of Tunisians in Zarzis protested the arrest of Chamseddine, and the Tunisian Fishermen Association of Zarzis sent a letter to the Italian embassy in Tunis stating: “Captain Bourassine and his crew are hardworking fishermen whose human values exceed the risks they face every day. When we meet boats in distress at sea, we do not think about their color or their religion.”

If the Tunisian men are convicted, they could face up to 15 years in prison.