Lawyer Cesare Fumagalli told The Associated Press there is absolutely no proof the Lebanese-flagged Bana plied Italian waters with such arms aboard, and therefore Italy has no jurisdiction over the case.
“The ship never went through Italian territorial waters,” Fumagalli said in a telephone interview. Italian authorities sequestered the vessel, which is used to transport vehicles between Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East, in the northern port of Genoa earlier this month.
Prosecutors have alleged the Bana transported tanks, motor vehicles fitted with rocket launchers and machines guns as well as explosives from Turkey to Libya in defiance of international embargoes. They also contend Turkish soldiers accompanied the shipment.
Fumagalli said his client, Capt. Youssef Tartoussi, is in a “calm” state of mind. Italian prosecutors contend that the ship repeatedly, and for extended periods of time, turned off its transponders, including when the ship was approaching the ports of Mersin, Turkey, and Tripoli, Libya. In seeking the captain's arrest, they contend he acted together still-to-be identified other persons, “indicated as Turkish soldiers,” in the alleged arms trafficking.
Italians started investigating what the Bana did before arriving in Genoa after the ship's third officer, with the help of the shipping company's local agent, contacted border police and requested asylum.
According to the judge's ruling in approving the arrest order, the officer, who is Lebanese like Capt. Tartoussi, told Italian authorities that the ship left Beirut on Jan. 21, and stopped the next day in Mersin, even though the port hadn't been on the Bana's navigational plan.
There, it allegedly took aboard “army tanks, wheeled vehicles equipped with rocket launchers and machine guns, cross-country vehicles and some containers marked with labels indicating the presence of explosives as well as about 10 Turkish soldiers.”
In a bid to gain influence in the energy-rich northern African country Turkey has taken the side of one of Libya's rival governments, promising military support and sending hundreds of Syrian fighters. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this week said Turkey would continue to help the Tripoli-based government establish dominance over the entire country.
Erdogan met with the prime minister of the Tripoli-based government, Fayez Sarraj, in Istanbul on Thursday. No statement was issued following the meeting. In Ankara on Thursday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request by AP for comment. A senior Turkish military official, asked about Italian prosecutors' contentions that Turkish military members allegedly played a role in the traffficking, replied that the military had no such information.
Italian authorities contend the captain violated embargoes by both the United Nations and the European Union. The Italian government considers efforts to keep weapons from reaching Libya's warring forces crucial to ending the fighting in that country. EU leaders this week decided to deploy a sea operation for embargo enforcement.
Chaos and lawlessness have mainly held sway in Libya since 2011, after an uprising deposed and killed longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Italian prosecutors have asked experts to see whether crew members' cell phones, turned on during the voyage, will help them determine the Bana's actual route.
But Fumagalli, the defense lawyer, argued that sometimes cell phones at sea can pick up signals from countries near by, but that doesn't indicate a boat is in these countries' waters. In her ruling on the arrest request, Judge Silvia Carpanini noted that the whistle-blower took photos of the armaments allegedly aboard. “He claimed, therefore, asylum, because he was afraid of possible retaliation against him, even because, according to him, the owner's brother is connected with the Hezbollah organization.”
The Bana's Lebanese owner, Merhi Abou Merhi, has denied that the ship was used to transport armored vehicles to Libya. He hasn't responded to an AP request for an interview. The United States in 2015 accused him of laundering money for Hezbollah, the militant group, but removed him from its list of sanctioned individuals in 2017. He has consistently denied money-laundering allegations.
Genoa prosecutor Francesco Pinto earlier this week said that other crew members backed up the whistle-blower's account of arms and Turkish soldiers aboard.