Saturday, January 28

‘It was mind-blowing’: Richard Gere on the rescue boat at the heart of Salvini’s trial | Global development

THollywood actor Richard Gere has for the first time revealed the full story behind his mission of mercy to the NGO Open Arms rescue boat as he prepares to testify as a witness against former Italian Interior Minister and far-right leader Matteo Salvini, who is on trial for trying to block the landing of the 147 people on board in Italy.

In an exclusive interview with The Guardian, Gere, 72, whom lawyers have listed as a key witness to the situation aboard the NGO Open Arms rescue boat, described the scenes of despair he saw when he arrived on the ship. which was being held off the Italian island. from Lampedusa in the summer of 2019 in rapidly deteriorating conditions.

“We saw more than a hundred people on board,” Gere told the Guardian. “I felt ashamed that we have so much and cannot hug these human beings, our brothers and sisters who were hungry, traumatized. If they were told that the ship was returning to Libya, they would jump into the water and drown, and I felt it was our responsibility to bring as much light as we could. “

Richard Gere is seen with a small child on the Open Arms ship
Richard Gere: ‘I mean, in deeply Christian Italy, how could this happen? Is it criminal to help people in need? It was amazing for me. ‘ Photography: Francisco Gentico / Open Arms

Salvini’s trial for the incident, for which he faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted of kidnapping and breach of duty, began in Palermo last month. The judge, Roberto Murgia, allowed Gere’s testimony after the actor said he was willing to testify on behalf of the refugees. A date for the testimony has yet to be set.

The magistrates consider Gere, who was on the ship but was not a refugee or a member of the crew, an objective observer who can give credence to what they have described as an “explosive situation on board” with forced asylum seekers. to stay on deck for 19 days without receiving medical attention before finally being allowed to disembark.

The blockade of the Spanish tugboat Open Arms became one of the most notorious consequences of the security decree recently introduced by Salvini that aimed to end the rescue missions of NGOs in the central Mediterranean by imposing fines of up to 50,000 euros (42,700 pounds sterling) for ships that brought immigrants to Italy without permission.

Gere’s trip to the ship began with a vacation in Tuscany. “I was visiting a friend that summer who asked me if I knew about this new law in Italy, so I asked him to explain it to me. He said: ‘It will be a crime to help people in danger.’

“‘You must be kidding! This is not possible!’ I mean, in deeply Christian Italy, how could this happen? Is it criminal to help people in need? It was mind-blowing for me. “

She put the vacation on hold to fly to Sicily with her son and on August 9, with a small boat full of supplies of food and water, the Hollywood star arrived on the Open Arms ship.

The final stretch to get to the rescue ship was not easy at all. When he arrived in Lampedusa from Sicily, Gere and other NGO volunteers bought food and water. But there was a problem. The Italian authorities would not allow any ship to approach the Open Arms, which was still at sea.

Richard Gere is seen with people aboard the Open Arms ship
Gere: “We were a lifeline for a world without torture, of possibilities and dreams.” Photography: Francisco Gentico / Open Arms

“There was this man,” Gere says. “The police told him that they would destroy his business and that he would end up in jail if he helped us. We had the food, but we didn’t have the boat to take the food to these people. “

Eventually an islander recognized the actor and offered to help. His boat was small, but there was no time to waste. The situation at Open Arms was getting more and more dire by the hour. With the ship full of supplies, so many that Gere and the others sat on top of the supplies, the team set out. After an hour on rough seas, they reached the ship.

Gere and the others distributed food to the migrants immediately. Accompanied by an interpreter, he spoke to almost everyone on the ship. “I showed up,” he says. “I introduced them to my son. I looked into their eyes. Most of them did not know me or did not know me. To them, I was just a worker bringing some food and doing my best to smile and be nice. We brought food and water, and maybe a sense of hope.

“We were a lifeline for a world without torture, of possibilities and dreams. Then I asked them who they are, where they come from. There was a mother with her young daughters who had to navigate the militias trying to reach Libya. Of course, these young women were easy prey, and she had to surrender at every border, she had to surrender to militia gangs, sexually, to protect her daughters and take her family to the Mediterranean, where there would be hope. and security. And there she was, 20 miles from a safe place but unable to reach the shore. “

Gere, who has been involved in numerous humanitarian causes over the years, began using his contacts to see if he could get more help for the refugees. “I called the Spanish prime minister [Pedro Sánchez] off the ship and asked him to take some of these people away, and as much as he felt about the situation, he was politically constrained by how much the right was pulling the strings in Spain. He told me: ‘Look, we’ve been taking a lot of people from Morocco, they find the water from Morocco. We take too many. ‘ But basically he said that he could only do what his people allowed him to do.

“I called my contacts in Germany and [Angela] Merkel was obviously the bravest person in Europe. They were hosting more than a million refugees, but at the time she felt limited. In the end, no one took responsibility. “

A man sleeps aboard the Open Arms ship
A man sleeps aboard the Open Arms rescue ship. Photography: Francisco Gentico / Open Arms

The experience aboard the ship would leave an indelible mark on Gere and, while Salvini went to trial, the actor agreed to testify on behalf of Open Arms. It was not a well-received decision across the Italian political spectrum and some on the right have accused it of grandstanding. “Tell me how serious a trial is where Richard Gere will come from Hollywood to testify about my wrongdoing,” Salvini said. Giorgia Meloni, leader of the nationalist Brothers of Italy party, declared that Gere was just a “Actor seeking visibility”.

Gere, who began his Hollywood career in the 1970s and became one of its most profitable leads, chuckled when asked what he thought about Meloni’s tease. “Visibility? In fact, I’ve been seeking anonymity. It’s the opposite,” he says.

“First of all, I don’t know these people. I’ve never met them, but I highly doubt that they took the time to go on a boat and have a human experience and understand the real people they influence. If they did, then I think there is probably another conversation to have. You see, I don’t see myself as a movie star. I am one of the 7 billion human beings on the planet, that’s it, no more. I am neither better nor worse than anyone. “

He says his motivation was to say what he had seen on the boat. “Look, I don’t know anything about politics, and I don’t know the defendants in this case. Frankly, I do not wish you [Salvini] sick, but my concern is the people who are suffering so much. That is what moves me. It’s possible, because I was there, in the midst of the madness, my visceral human understanding is perhaps a little deeper than most people’s. I was a witness, neither more nor less. And I can share that with the rest of the world if they ask.

“But in terms of politics, I am not defending in one way or another what the Italian people should do. That is completely up to the Italians. “

Advocating for refugees, the poor, the sick and the homeless is a solemn endeavor for Gere. its Gere Foundation supports global development, global health and humanitarian initiatives with a focus on Tibet. He has been a long-time supporter of Survival International, an organization that defends the human rights of indigenous peoples around the world. It is also on the front lines of the fight against AIDS. He has visited refugee camps from Kosovo to El Salvador.

He first met Open Arms five years earlier in Barcelona when he met Oscar Camps, founder of the Spanish NGO. Since then, Gere has been communicating with him regularly to obtain real-time information on the status of refugees in the Mediterranean.

Richard Gere seen with refugees aboard the Open Arms ship
Gere: ‘I’m only here to speak for people who don’t have a voice. It’s not about me. ‘ Photography: Francisco Gentico / Open Arms

“Open Arms inspires me,” says Gere. “I am deeply committed to your view of the universe. They are dealing closely with these people, and that is where you want to get your information. […] They said it was very serious, not only for themselves, but also for other rescue boats. And that’s when I made a very quick decision. I said, ‘Look, I have to see this for myself. I got into a car and got to the Rome airport in literally five minutes. “

Gere says he is keenly aware that in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, more than 70 years after the defeat of fascism in World War II, thousands of people are joining self-described fascist groups. Far-right groups have become more prominent in the United States in recent years, while in response to their own migration from the south, videos and photos of the Mexican border have been shown. Border Patrol guards on horseback chase asylum seekers from Haiti.

“We saw during the Nazi era how easy it was to think of other people and do horrible things to them,” he says. “It is a mentality of ignorance, cruelty, the mentality that thinks that we personally exist in our own bubble, and as a country we exist in a bubble, and it is completely flawed and ignorant.”

Gere is from Pennsylvania. His parents came from a very small town where his father grew up milking cows. And the actor said that the values ​​of the community have not changed, with its honest and hardworking people who would do anything for their neighbors.

“But,” says Gere, “they are 95% Trump people. It doesn’t make sense to me. Trump, or the defendants in this case, exploit people the rest of us don’t see. That’s what scares me. We don’t see our own brothers and sisters in our own community deeply enough to understand where that darkness comes from. It’s important for us to really look at them and not marginalize them, but embrace them. “

You are more likely to appear via a video link and are calm about being called at any time. In his Buddhist calm, he adds: “It is very simple, I will only tell the truth, I will only say what I experienced. I am only here to speak for the people who have no voice. It’s not about me. I am completely irrelevant here. I’m honest with you. I can be invisible. All I am is a witness. “

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