Migrant rescue captain still under house arrest after questioning

TOPSHOT - German captain of humanitarian ship Sea-Watch 3, Carola Rackete looks onas she arrives in a car of the Italian Guardia di Finanza law enforcement agency on July 1, 2019 to appear before a judge at the courthouse in Agrigento, Sicily. - The captain of migrant rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, Germany's Carola Rackete was due to appear in court on July 1 accused of hitting a police boat while entering Italy's Lampedusa port with 40 people rescued from the Mediterranean. Rackete was arrested after a two week standoff at sea and faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted. (Photo by Giovanni ISOLINO / AFP) (Photo credit should read GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)

ROME (AP) — The German captain who defied Italian authorities and rammed her migrant rescue ship into a border police motorboat while docking remained under house arrest after questioning Monday before a judge in Sicily who will decide if she can regain her liberty.

Sea-Watch, the German humanitarian group which operates the rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3, said in a tweet that the judge will announce her ruling on Tuesday.

Captain Carola Rackete’s closed-door hearing before Judge Alessandra Vella in Agrigento, Sicily, lasted about three hours.

Rackete has become a kind of cause celebre for some in her homeland for defying Italy’s anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has vowed not to let any charity rescue boat disembark migrants on Italian shores. Salvini contends such rescues essentially help human traffickers who launch unseaworthy boats, crowded with migrants, from Libyan shores.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation against Rackete for allegedly resisting a war ship and using violence against it, a reference to the damaged boat of the border police, which is considered as a military force under Italian law. If charged and convicted, Rackete risks up to 10 years in prison.

The five officers aboard the police motorboat blocking her path to port on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa off Sicily in the early hours of Saturday escaped injury but the side of their boat was damaged when the much larger rescue boat plowed into it.

Going into the hearing, one of her lawyers, Leonardo Marino, said the 31-year-old captain would answer all questions.

“Ms. Rackete acted out of a state of necessity and didn’t have any intention of using violence,” Marino said.

The lawyer was echoing a contention made by Rackete herself in the last hours at the helm of Sea-Watch-3 that the migrants were in a desperate condition after 17 days at sea since leaving Libya in an unseaworthy traffickers’ vessel.

But Agrigento Prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio told reporters after the hearing he disputed that contention in court.

“There was no such state of need,” Patronaggio said he had argued before the judge.

The prosecutor said he also argued that the Sea-Watch 3’s maneuver in docking was done deliberately.

On Saturday, shortly after Sea-Watch 3 docked at Lampedusa, Salvini said he ordered the captain’s arrest as well as the sequestering of the vessel once the migrants had stepped ashore.

After Monday’s hearing ended, Salvini said that however it goes, “we are always ready to expel the rich German outlaw,” the Italian news agency ANSA quoted him as saying.

Between donations by supporters of Rackete’s efforts, both in Italy and in Germany, hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars) have rolled in for her legal defense and to help pay a fine of as much as 50,000 euros ($56,000), which would also apply to the ship’s owner, according to Italian law.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte told reporters Monday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked him about Rackete at a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels. He said he replied that her fate was in the hands of the Italian justice system. A day earlier, Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier had questioned Italy’s handling of the situation.

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