Viral #FreePia Campaign for German Biologist Boat Captain Pia Klemp Facing Prison for Helping Stranded Refugees

A petition demanding that charges against a German boat captain credited with saving hundreds of lives be dropped has gained more than 80,000 signatures.

The #FreePia campaign has been launched in support of Pia Kemp, a 35-year-old boat captain facing up to 20 years in prison for her efforts to rescue more than 1,000 migrants from the Mediterranean Sea.

While migrant rights groups see Kemp, who has also worked with non-profit Mediterranean rescue group Sea-Watch, as a hero, her efforts to save hundreds of lives could soon see her put behind bars in Italy.

Kemp, who was born in Bonn, will soon be expected to stand trial in Italy after she was charged in Sicily with assisting in illegal immigration, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

As the DW reported, Klemp has said that she could face "up to 20 years in prison and horrendous fines" for her life-saving efforts.

Klemp's trial comes as part of a widespread immigration crackdown led by Italy's right-wing Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who campaigned on harsh penalties for migrants caught crossing the country's borders illegally.

Salvini's crackdown has also led to rescue workers, like Kemp, being branded criminals for their efforts to spare migrants from the fate met by the more than 2,200 people who died trying to cross the Mediterranean last year.

In a statement shared on the petition in support of Kemp, organizers say that the boat captain's imprisonment would represent the "surrender of humanity" in Europe.

Kemp and her supporters have also argued that the boat captain's actions in the Mediterranean were in line with both the UN's own policies on rescues at sea and the humanitarian responsibilities of a boat captain.

"We have only followed international law, especially the law of the sea, where the highest priority is to save people from distress," she said in an interview with Swiss newspaper Basler Zeitung.

If Kemp is convicted of her charges, she has said she plans to fight the conviction in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

However, she said: "The worst has already come to pass...Sea rescue missions have been criminalized."

Among those speaking out in support of the boat captain is Peter Scott Smith, the son of late World War II veteran Harry Leslie Smith.

"In another era, Pia Klemp would have saved Jews from extermination," Smith tweeted, before hitting out at EU countries for not doing more to intervene.

"That she faces 20 years in jail in 2019 for saving refugees lost at sea, indicts the EU for hypocrisy and abetting crimes against humanity for allowing Italy to conduct a show trial," he said.

Newsweek has contacted Sea-Watch for comment on this article.

Refugees, Libya, Europe
Migrants and refugees sit on a rubber boat before to be rescued by the ship Topaz Responder run by Maltese NGO Moas and Italian Red Cross off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea, on November 5, 2016 off the coast of Libya. Getty/ANDREAS SOLARO