THollywood actor Richard Gere revealed for the first time the whole story of his mission of mercy to the NGO Open Arms rescue boat as he prepares to testify against the former Italian interior minister and far-right leader Matteo Salvini, who is on trial for trying to prevent the 147 people on board from landing in Italy.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Gere, 72, who lawyers cited as a key witness to the situation aboard the NGO Open Arms rescue boat, described the scenes of desperation he saw in his arrival on the vessel detained off the Italian island. of Lampedusa in the summer of 2019 with rapidly deteriorating conditions.
“We saw over a hundred people on board,” Gere told The Guardian. “I was ashamed that we had so much and that we weren’t able to embrace these human beings, our brothers and sisters who were starving, traumatized. If we told them the boat was heading back to Libya, they would jump in the water and drown, and I felt it was our responsibility to shed as much light as possible.
Salvini’s trial over the incident, for which he faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison if convicted of kidnapping and dereliction of duty, began in Palermo last month. Judge Roberto Murgia allowed Gere to testify after the actor said he was ready to testify on behalf of the refugees. The date for the testimony has not yet been set.
The magistrates consider Gere, who was on the boat but neither a refugee nor a member of the crew, as an objective observer who can lend credence to what they described as an “explosive situation on board” with asylum seekers forced to remain on deck for 19 days without receiving medical treatment before being finally cleared to disembark.
The blockage of the Spanish tug Open Arms has become one of the most notorious consequences of the security decree recently introduced by Salvini which aimed to end NGO rescue missions in the central Mediterranean by imposing fines of up to 50,000 € (£ 42,700) for boats which brought migrants to Italy without authorization.
Gere’s journey to the ship began with a vacation in Tuscany. “I was visiting a friend that summer who asked me if I was aware of this new law in Italy, so I asked him to explain it to me. He said: “It will be a criminal offense to help people in distress.”
“‘You must be laughing at me! It can’t be!’ I mean, in a deeply Christian Italy, how did it happen? It’s criminal to help people in need? It was mind boggling to me.
He suspended the holidays to fly to Sicily with his son and on August 9, with a small boat full of food and water, the Hollywood star reached the Open Arms ship.
The last step to get to the rescue vessel was far from straightforward. When he arrived in Lampedusa from Sicily, Gere and other NGO volunteers bought food and water. But there was a problem. Italian authorities did not allow any boats to approach Open Arms, which was still at sea.
“There was this man,” Gere says. “The police told him they would destroy his business and he would end up in jail if he helped us. We had the food, but we didn’t have the boat to bring the food to these people.
Eventually, an islander recognized the actor and offered to help him. His boat was small, but there was no time to waste. The situation on Open Arms was getting more and more dramatic every hour. With the boat full of provisions – so many that Gere and the others sat on the provisions – the team left. After an hour on rough seas, they reached the ship.
Gere and the others immediately distributed food to the migrants. Accompanied by an interpreter, he spoke to almost everyone on the ship. “I introduced myself,” he says. “I introduced them to my son. I looked them in the eye. Most of them didn’t know me or who I was. To them, I was just a laborer bringing food and doing my best to smile and be kind. We brought food and water, and maybe a sense of hope.
“We were a lifeline to a world of non-torture, possibilities and dreams. Then I asked them who they were, where they were from. There was a mother with her young daughters who had to navigate among the militias trying to make their way to Libya. Of course, these young girls were easy prey, and she had to give herself to every border, she had to engage in militia gangs, sexually, to protect her daughters and take her family to the Mediterranean, where there would be danger. hope and security. And there she was, 20 miles from safety but unable to reach shore.
Gere, who has been involved in many humanitarian causes over the years, began to use his contacts to see if he could get more help for the refugees. “I called the Spanish Prime Minister [Pedro Sánchez] from the boat and asked him to take some of those people, and as much as he felt the situation he was politically compelled because of how much the right was pulling the strings in Spain. He said to me: “Look, we took a lot of people from Morocco, they crossed the water of Morocco. We take too much. But basically he said he could only do what his people would allow him to do.
“I called my contacts in Germany and [Angela] Merkel was obviously the bravest person in Europe. They were hosting over a million refugees, but at that point she felt constrained. In the end, no one took responsibility.
The experience aboard the ship will leave an indelible mark on Gere and, while Salvini was on trial, the actor agreed to testify on behalf of Open Arms. It was not a decision well received across the Italian political spectrum and some on the right accused him of demagoguery. “You tell me how serious a trial is where Richard Gere will come from Hollywood to testify to my wickedness,” Salvini said. Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Nationalist Party of the Brothers of Italy, said Gere was just one “Actor in search of visibility”.
Gere, who started his Hollywood career in the 1970s and became one of his most profitable leading men, laughed when asked what he thought of Meloni’s jibe. “Visibility? Actually, I sought 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 get on a boat and have a human experience and understand the real people they influence. If they did, then I think there’s probably another conversation to be had. 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 all, no more. I am neither better nor worse than anyone.
He says his motivation was to say what he saw on the boat. “Look, I don’t know anything about politics, and I don’t know the defendants in this case. Frankly, I don’t wish her [Salvini] sick, but what worries me are the people who are suffering so much. This is what moves me. It’s possible, because I was there, in the middle of the madness, my visceral human understanding is maybe a little deeper than most people’s. I was a witness, no more, no less. And I can share this with the rest of the world if asked.
“But in terms of politics, I am not advocating one way or another what the Italian people should be doing. It depends entirely on the Italians.
Defending the refugees, the poor, the sick and the homeless is a solemn undertaking for Gere. His Gere Foundation supports global development, global health and humanitarian initiatives with a focus on Tibet. He is a longtime supporter of International Survival, an organization that defends the human rights of indigenous peoples around the world. He is also at the forefront of the fight against AIDS. He visited Kosovo refugee camps in 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 contacted him regularly to obtain real-time information on the status of refugees in the Mediterranean.
“I am inspired by Open Arms,” says Gere. “I am deeply attached to their perspective on the universe. They deal with these people closely, and that’s where you want to get your information. […] They said it was very serious, not only for them, but also for the other rescue boats. And that’s when I made a very quick decision. I said, ‘Look, I have to see this for myself.’ I jumped in a car and arrived at Rome airport in literally five minutes.
Gere says he is keenly aware that in Italy and other places in Europe, more than 70 years after fascism was defeated in World War II, thousands of people are joining self-proclaimed fascist groups. Far-right groups have become more visible in the United States in recent years, while in response to their own migration from the south, videos and photos from the Mexican border have shown Border guards on horseback chase asylum seekers from Haiti.
“We saw in the days of the Nazis how easy it was to think about other people and do horrible things to them,” he says. “It’s a mentality of ignorance, of cruelty, the mentality that thinks we personally exist in our own bubble, and as a country we exist in a bubble – and it’s completely flawed and ignorant.”
Gere is originally from Pennsylvania. Her parents are from a very small town where her father grew up milking cows. And the actor said the values of the community haven’t changed, with its honest, hard-working people doing anything for their neighbors.
“But,” Gere says, “that’s 95% of Trump’s people. It doesn’t make sense. Trump, or the defendants in this case, are exploiting the people the rest of us don’t see. which scares me. We don’t see our own brothers and sisters in our own community deeply enough to understand where this darkness comes from. It is important for us to really look at them and not marginalize them, but embrace them .
He is most likely to appear via a video link and is relaxed about the possibility that he can be called out at any time. In his Buddhist calm, he adds, “It’s very simple, I’m just going to tell the truth, I’m just going to tell what I experienced. I am only here to speak on behalf of the people who have no voice. It’s not about me. I am completely irrelevant here. I am being honest with you. I can be invisible. All that I am is a witness.