Italy has been fined by a European court for violating the human rights of African migrants.

The European Court of Human Rights said on Thursday that Italy's decision to send 24 Eritreans and Somalis back to Libya in 2009 put the migrants at risk. Italy has been ordered to pay 15,000 euros ($20,000) to each of the plaintiffs and to cover court costs.

The immigrants, on a ship carrying 200 people, were intercepted by the Italian Coast Guard in the Mediterranean as they were leaving Africa from Tripoli and heading towards the island of Lampedusa. Due to a bilateral agreement, the boat was sent back to Libya, where the migrants were picked up by authorities.

The court ruled that Italy put the migrants at unnecessary risk. They could have been detained and mistreated in Tripoli, or sent back to Somalia and Eritrea, where they could be arrested or even tortured.

Italy said in its defense that the country was overburdened by refugees entering the country at the time. The court acknowledged the claim, but added that this could not absolve a State of its obligation not to remove any person who would run the risk of being subjected to (prohibited) treatment.

Today's important ruling vindicates what human rights groups argued all along: Italy put these people at grave risk when it pushed them back to Libya, said Judith Sunderland, senior western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. Even on the high seas, European states can't wash their hands of responsibilities towards migrants and refugees.