Richard Gere will soon be testifying in Italian court against far-right leader Matteo Salvini, who is on trial for attempting to block 147 people aboard the NGO rescue boat Open Arms from landing in the country.
In an interview with The Guardian, the actor opened up about his upcoming testimony, and his experience aboard the Open Arms in 2019, witnessing the conditions faced by the refugees aboard.
“We saw more than a hundred people on board,” Gere said. “I felt ashamed that we have so much and are not able to embrace these fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters who were starving, traumatised. If they were told the boat was going back to Libya, they would jump in the water and drown themselves, and I felt it was our responsibility to bring as much light as we could.”
The vessel was held off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa during the summer of 2019, and Salvini is facing a maximum of 15 years in prison on charges of kidnapping and dereliction of duty in the trial, which begins next month.
A Spanish tugboat, the blocking of the Open Arms occurred as a result of Salvini’s security decree imposing fines of up to $71,000 on boats bringing migrants to Italy without permission. The politician was serving as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior for Italy at the time.
Recalling how he got involved in the situation with the refugee vessel, Gere said, “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’s going to be a criminal offence to help people in distress.’”
“‘You’ve gotta be kidding me! This is not possible!’” the actor remembered saying. “I mean, in deeply Christian Italy, how could this happen? It’s criminal to help people in need? It was mind-boggling to me.”
Gere joined volunteers to bring food to the people aboard the Open Arms, but was first met with Italian authorities blocking any boat from getting new the vessel at sea.
“There was this man,” he said. “He was told by the police that they’d destroy his business and that he’d end up in jail if he helped us. We had the food, but we didn’t have the boat to get the food out to these people.”
After an islander recognized Gere, the actor was helped to get aboard the Open Arms, where he discovered a dire situation.
“I introduced myself,” he recalled. “I introduced them to my son. I looked them in the eyes. Most of them didn’t know me or who I was. To them, I was just a worker guy who brought some food and did his best to smile and be kind. We brought water and food, and maybe a sense of hope.
He continued, “We were a lifeline to a world of non-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 make her way to Libya. Of course, these young girls were easy prey, and she had to give herself on every border, she had to give herself to gangs of militias, sexually, to protect her daughters and to take her family to the Mediterranean, where there would be hope and safety. And there she was, 20 miles from safety but unable to reach the shore.”
Gere will be testifying as a third party witness to the events that occurred aboard the boat, though a date for the testimony has not yet been set.
Recently, Salvini blasts the actor’s involvement in the case, telling reporters, “You tell me how serious a trial is where Richard Gere will come from Hollywood to testify about my nastiness.”
“Visibility?” Gere told The Guardian. “Actually I have been searching for anonymity. It’s the opposite.”
He explained, “First of all, I don’t know these people. I’ve never met them, but I highly doubt they’ve taken the time to go on a boat and have a human experience and understand the real people they have their influence over. If they did that, then I think there’s probably another conversation to have. You see, I don’t see myself as a movie star. I’m one of 7 billion human beings on the planet, that’s it, no more. I’m no better or worse than anyone.”
Talking about the plight of refugees, Gere said, “We saw during the time of the Nazis how easy it was to think of the other and do horrible things to them. It’s a mentality of ignorance, cruelty, the mentality that thinks that we exist personally in our own bubble, and as a country we exist in a bubble – and it’s completely faulty and ignorant.”
He added more generally, “Trump, or the defendants in this case, exploit the people that the rest of us kind of don’t see. That’s what frightens me. We don’t see our own brothers and sisters in our own community deep enough to understand where that darkness is coming from. It’s important for us to really look and not marginalize them, but to embrace them.”
As for what he plans to say in his testimony, Gere said, “It’s very simple, I’ll just tell the truth, I’ll just tell what I experienced. I’m only here to speak for people who don’t have a voice. It’s not about me. I’m completely irrelevant here. I’m honest with you. I can be invisible. All I am is a witness.”