Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of two charities that operate the Aquarius rescue ship, is accused of improperly disposing of the waste accumulated during its activities at sea, including the remains of food, medical waste and “contaminated clothing worn by non-EU citizens”, according to the police charge sheet seen by Ansa news agency.
The investigation concerns 24 tonnes of waste and 11 different Italian ports, according to the filing.
The NGO condemned the seizure of the Aquarius, which it called the “umpteenth trumped-up attack to block MSF's life-saving activities at sea”.
— MediciSenzaFrontiere (@MSF_ITALIA) November 20, 2018
A total of 24 people are accused of conspiring to dump potentially hazardous refuse on 44 separate occasions between January 2017 and May 2018, from both the Aquarius and the Vos Prudence, another ship chartered by MSF last year for its operations in the Mediterranean.
They include both MSF members onboard and others in the command centres in Amsterdam and Brussels that helped operate the ships, who are alleged to have put potentially dangerous waste in with ordinary rubbish.
Checks on the ship's waste handed over for disposal in Italian facilities revealed that medical items such as used gauze and gloves, as well as clothes worn by migrants – some of whom were known to be suffering from infectious diseases while onboard – were neither separated nor declared, according to the investigation by Italian police.
People rescued at sea by the Aquarius in May 2016. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP
“All our port operations, including waste management, have always followed standard procedures,” MSF said in a statement. “The relevant authorities have not contested these procedures or identified a public health risk since we started our activities at sea.”
“The only crime we see today on the Mediterranean is the total dismantling of the search and rescue system,” said MSF Italy director Gabriele Eminente.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has accused charities who rescue migrants in the Med of human trafficking and declared Italy's ports closed to all NGO vessels, said on Twitter that the allegations vindicated his hardline stance: “I was right to block NGO boats, I stopped not just the smuggling of immigrants but also, so it seems, the smuggling of waste.”
Sequestrata la nave #Aquarius.
Ho fatto bene a bloccare le navi delle ONG, ho fermato non solo il traffico di immigrati clandestini ma, da quanto emerge, anche quello di rifiuti tossici.#portichiusi pic.twitter.com/79GPrejO4h
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) November 20, 2018
The Aquarius is currently docked at the southern French port of Marseille, where it has been confined since being stripped of its flag first by Gibraltar, then by Panama. MSF and its partner SOS Méditerranée, which operate the ship together, accuse the Italian government of pressuring other countries into denying the Aquarius its permit to sail.
SOS Méditeranée, which like MSF denied any illegal practices, called the seizure “another strike in the series of attacks criminalising humanitarian aid at sea”.
“The tragic current situation is leading to an absence of humanitarian search and rescue vessels operating in the central Mediterranean, while the mortality rate is on the rise,” said the group's head of operations, Frederic Penard, in a statement that called on France to “show restraint in the implementation of this decision”.
The Aquarius was at the heart of a diplomatic dispute between Italy and its neighbours earlier this year, when both Italy and Malta refused to allow it to dock with more than 600 rescued people aboard. The ship remained stranded at sea for over a day until Spain eventually offered it safe harbour.
The Vos Prudence, meanwhile, is no longer operated by MSF.
Italian prosecutors also ordered the charity's bank accounts in Italy to be frozen, affecting €460,000 of assets.