MILAN (AP) — A sea captain who forced a rescue ship carrying 40 migrants into an Italian island port against orders of authorities appears to have acted in accordance with maritime law, according to a court order that freed the German volunteer from house arrest in Italy.
Carola Rackete, 31, was released from house arrest late Tuesday after a judge in Sicily denied prosecutors’ request to keep her confined nearly four days after she was escorted off the ship and taken into custody at the Lampedusa island port.
The 13-page order obtained Wednesday cited an article of maritime law obliging both the captain and national authorities to offer rescue and aid to anyone who reaches a country’s territorial waters after having been saved at sea.
A Sea-Watch spokeswoman, Giorgia Linardi, told reporters in Rome that Rackete remained in Italy, where she is a focus of two investigations. One is for disobeying orders and docking Sea-Watch 3 at the Lampedusa port to disembark migrant passengers early Saturday.
The other is for allegedly aiding illegal immigration. Prosecutors are scheduled to question her in coming days.
“Carola is doing well,” Linardi said. “Obviously, having spent these days in isolation, she isn’t yet aware of the resonance that this incident and the way she managed it is having.”
The interpretation of maritime law the judge made in deciding to free Rackete from house arrest supported Sea-Watch’s application of it, Linardi said.
Investigating Judge Alessandra Vella also wrote that the contact between Rackete’s ship and a police boat at the Lampedusa docks before her arrest needed to be legally “resized” based on video evidence and the captain’s statements.
Italian prosecutors accused Rackete of deliberately ramming into a border police motorboat “compressed between the Sea-Watch 3 and the dock.” Rackete said she was making “a cautious approach to the port docks” when the two vessels made contact.
But the judge wrote the police boat “directed itself toward the commercial dock, putting itself between the dock and the ship, in an attempt to prevent the Sea-Watch from docking.”
The Sea-Watch “bumped against” the police boat “during the mooring maneuver,” and the police boat “managed to remove itself and moor itself a short distance from the ship,” the judge wrote.
In ending the captain’s house arrest, the judge also rejected prosecutors’ contention that Rackete should be charged with disobeying a war ship. A police boat that ordered her not to dock does not operate as a war ship in Italian waters, the judge said.
Italian Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, who has refused to allow humanitarian ships to bring migrants rescued at sea into Italian ports, has called the Sea-Watch 3 captain’s defiance tantamount to an act of war.
During questioning in parliament Wednesday, Salvini insisted Rackete’s actions were unnecessary and the migrants would have disembarked the next day.
The comments were met with incredulity by parliament member Nicola Fratoianni, who was among the Italian lawmakers who had boarded Sea-Watch 3 before Saturday and reported no sign of the government yielding.
On Wednesday, nonprofit groups that operated rescue ships also countered Salvini’s narrative that their presence on the Mediterranean Sea encouraged smugglers to send migrants on dangerous boat trips from Libya.
The spokesman for Doctors Without Borders in Italy, Marco Bertotto, said at a news conference one out of every six smugglers’ boats that departed Libya during the first half of 2019 was met by a humanitarian rescue ship.
“This should put a tombstone on the fantastical and false narrative of the attraction effect created by the NGOs,” he said.
There have been 20 standoffs between private aid ships carrying rescued migrants and European governments that refused to provide immediate safe harbor since Italy’s populist government took office last year, Bertotto said, adding that they involved 2,500 people kept at sea for a total of 165 days.