Ceuta judge calls 16 civil guards in to testify over migrant drowning tragedy

Fifteen sub-Saharans died trying to swim from Morocco to Spanish exclave last February

J. Jiménez Gálvez
Civil Guard officers returning migrants to Morocco at Tarajal beach.
Civil Guard officers returning migrants to Morocco at Tarajal beach.

One year after 15 sub-Saharan immigrants drowned in controversial circumstances while trying to reach the Spanish North African exclave of Ceuta, a judge has decided to officially investigate 16 civil guard officers allegedly involved in the incident.

The tragedy took place on February 6, 2014 when the undocumented migrants were attempting to swim around a seawall at the Tarajal border crossing between Ceuta and Morocco.

The Spanish government has admitted that the Civil Guard fired rubber bullets and threw smoke canisters in the direction of a group of several hundred individuals making a concerted attempt to reach Spanish territory. After being driven back, 15 members of the group drowned.

Spain claims that Brussels should contribute more to policing Europe’s southernmost border

Officials said riot gear was used because of the group’s “belligerent attitude.” On the Moroccan side, gendarmes and military units deployed similar equipment.

The inquiry into the case has been heavily delayed as a result of questions over who should handle it.

But now, a judge in Ceuta has called in 16 members of the Civil Guard to provide testimony about the events. The first court appearance is scheduled for March 3.

A local court initially declined to hear the case on the grounds that the deaths technically took place on Moroccan territory, and passed it on to Spain’s central criminal tribunal. But the National High Court recently sent the case back to Ceuta, where a judge will now have to determine whether the officers had any responsibility in the deaths.

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The Spanish government first denied the use of riot gear, but video footage of the incident forced authorities to backtrack on those statements.

The incident also sparked a diplomatic confrontation between Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz and the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, who demanded explanations.

Spain claims that Brussels should contribute more to policing Europe’s southernmost border, where thousands of undocumented migrants attempt to cross into the country by land or sea every year.

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