Posted by on Jul 29, 2019 in LEGAL UPDATES

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Carola Rackete, a sea captain who works for the German sea rescue organisation ‘Sea Watch’ was arrested on 29th June for docking a migrant ship without authorisation from officials at the port of Lampedusa, and for ramming into and allegedly attempting to sink an Italian Guardia di Finanza patrol boat.

On 12th June, Rackete had taken on board 53 migrants from the Libyan coast.  She rejected the offer to dock at Tripoli as it is deemed unsafe by humanitarian organisations and as such she headed towards Lampedusa in Italy. According to various NGOs and Süddeutsche Zeitung (South German Newspaper), Lampedusa is considered to be the safest port as per maritime law.

On 14th June, Italy officially closed its ports to migrant rescue ships such as Sea Watch 3, following amendments to Legge 113/2018 (Decreto Sicurezza-Bis – Italy’s National Security Law), brought into force by Legge n. 53/2019, until such time as other EU member states had agreed to accept the migrants, who included pregnant women, those who were ill and children. On 28th June Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal offered to take the migrants.  Legge n.53/2019 provided for fines of charities to the tune of tens of thousands of euros for bringing migrants to Italy. On the basis of the amended and enforced Decreto Sicurezza-Bis, rescue ships were threatened with fines of up to €50,000 (£44,800) and impounding of the vessel. 

On 29th June Rackete decided to dock Sea Watch 3 in Lampedusa, without prior authority, stating that she did so as she was worried for the safety of her passengers. She was immediately arrested by Italian authorities after docking and the migrants were not allowed to disembark until the other countries offering to provide safe haven provided the Italian government with  ‘numbers, timelines and means’.

Rackete was also accused of attempting to sink an Italian Guardia di Finanza patrol boat that was attempting to intercept her, in breach of  Article 1100 of the Codice della Navigazione – Resistence or violence against a warship, which states:

‘The commander or officer of the ship, who commits acts of resistance or violence against a national warship, is punished with imprisonment from three to ten years. The penalty for those competing in the crime is reduced from one third to half’.

As the amended Decreto Sicurezza-Bis had already received government approval a month previously, Rackete not only faced three to ten years imprisonment but also a potential fine of €50,000 (£44,800) plus the impounding of Sea Watch 3. In her defence she stated:

For days we had been taking turns, even at night, out of fear that someone might throw themselves overboard. And for them, who can’t swim, it means suicide. I feared the worst. There were acts of self-harm(Corriere della Sera) 

The arrest of Carola Rackete was just one example of recent harsh measures to prevent illegal migration and the current political climate of “tough border controls”.  The arrest caused a political divide. Italian Politician Riccardo Magi defended Rackete saying that she made a decision based on the dire condition of her passengers, yet Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte did not even address the matter at the G20 2019 Osaka summit. Germany understandably protested the arrest of their citizen who in Germany is viewed as a humanitarian heroine. Various appeal organisations in Germany and France have raised over 1 million Euros for Rackete’s and Sea Watch’s legal defence. Around the world, the event highlighted the ongoing European migrant crisis and Italy’s strong resistance to take on any more migrants.

On 2nd July Rackete was released from house arrest following a ruling by judge Alessandra Vella at the Court of Agrigento, who held that Rackete had broken no laws and that she had acted humanely to ensure the safety of her passengers who had been at sea for over 2 weeks, and that no act of violence had occurred. Rackete was cleared of any wrongdoing but may yet face possible charges for aiding and abetting illegal immigration.

The response of the Ministero dell’Interno, Matteo Salvini, to Rackete’s release and acquittal was nothing but anger. He threated to strip Judge Alessandra Vella of her title, stating it was a political decision and that: “Italy cannot be the landing spot for anyone deciding to unload human beings.”

In reeality the numbers of migrants reaching Italy has diminished greatly in 2019. Migrants arrivals by sea between January and May numbered 2,160, compared with 15,617 over the same period last year (statistics taken from The Times).

On 12th July it was reported in the press that the European Parliament wants to invite Rackete to Brussels to discuss the migrant problem in Europe further.

As of June 2019, ironically, Sea Watch 3 was the only humanitarian ship cruising off Libya. Do you think Rackete is a humanitarian heroine or a violator of law, whose actions could have made her responsible for illegal immigration, deaths at sea, profits generated by human trafficking and should consequently have been severely punished?

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