An Eritrean priest who was once nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for helping migrants cross the Mediterranean is now being investigated in Italy for aiding illegal immigration.
Fr. Mussie Zerai, who has been hailed for saving thousands of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean, is currently under investigation in Italy for allegedly aiding illegal immigration by illegally sending information about boats and landings to NGO rescue ships.
"I received a letter from the Trapani public prosecutor's office on Monday informing me of the investigation," Zerai told Agence France-Presse (AFP), insisting that he was innocent.
The priest admitted in a statement that he had passed on details of desperate migrant ships to NGOs and rescue authorities, but he maintained that his "interventions are aimed at saving human lives."
"I can assert myself that I have nothing to hide and that I have always acted in the light and in full legality," Zerai said in a statement released on Tuesday.
"Apart from the Trapani initiative, which I have already informed my lawyer so that I can see and possibly contradict it, I have not been called to any other venue to justify or in any way respond to my work in favour of refugees and migrants," he added.
According to AFP, Zerai would transmit coordinates of migrant boats to the Italian coast guard, but sometimes, he also sends out the information to privately-run rescue ships known to be in the vicinity.
His name somehow ended up in an investigation launched by Trapani prosecutors into illegal immigration which focuses mostly on the roles played in migrant rescues by privately-funded NGOs.
Zerai became known as a one-man emergency hotline for refugees after he gave his number to a journalist in 2003 to help him translate stories of Eritreans in a detention center in Libya.
The number soon spread, and it became a crisis support line for migrants who try to contact the priest from inside trucks in the Sahara desert.
The priest became a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 amid the worsening migration crisis. That same year, he was able to meet with Pope Francis, who was also nominated for the Nobel for his work on social justice and the environment.
During their meeting at a conference on human trafficking, they discussed the harrowing survivor stories that they had both heard on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. "He told me - have courage father, keep going,'" Zerai recalled.
According to UNHCR, about 5,000 Eritreans have entered Europe illegally by crossing the Mediterranean in 2017 alone, with the total of "sea arrivals" landing in Italy and Greece this year, reaching 117,000.