Impounded Sea Watch rescue vessel released in Italy

A charity rescue vessel run by Germany's Sea-Watch, impounded last month by Italian prosecutors as part of a probe into aiding illegal immigration, was released Saturday and given permission to sail.

Impounded Sea Watch rescue vessel released in Italy
File photo: AFP

“The Sea-Watch 3 is free! We have received formal notification of the ship's release from confiscation and its subsequent return to operations,” Sea Watch said on Twitter.

The Dutch-flagged vessel was impounded on May 20 after rescuing migrants off Libya and bringing them to Italy, where interior minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right League had warned the ports were closed.

The migrants were allowed to disembark on Italy's Lampedusa island, starting with the 18 most vulnerable — children and people needing medical care — then the remaining 47.

The rescue infuriated Salvini, whose popularity has soared thanks largely to his hardline migration policy.

The League head, who has attributed a decline in the number of deaths at sea to a deal made with the Libyan coastguard to prevent people from heading to European shores, has repeatedly insisted Italy's ports are closed to migrants.

Salvini says those setting sail from Libya to seek safety in Europe should be returned to the crisis-hit country — an order that is illegal under international law, and which charity-run migrant rescue vessels have repeatedly refused to follow.

An Italian military ship which rescued 100 people Thursday, saying their lives had been in imminent danger after their boat's engine failed in worsening weather, was expected to bring them to the port of Genoa Sunday.

Salvini said Saturday he had clinched an agreement with five European countries and the Vatican to host those saved, having earlier said he was determined “not a single immigrant” would be paid for by the Italian taxpayer.

“A part of the immigrants will be taken in by five other European countries, while all the others will be given hospitality by the Vatican,” he said, without naming the countries. There was no immediate confirmation from the Vatican.

READ ALSO: Italy tells rescue ship carrying migrants to stay away

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Italian court rules it was wrong to arrest migrant ship captain

Italy's highest court on Friday agreed that Carola Rackete, the German captain of a migrant rescue ship, should not have been arrested for forcibly docking in Sicily.

Italian court rules it was wrong to arrest migrant ship captain
Carola Rackete at the release of her book 'Act instead of hoping' in October. Photo: Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP
“This is an important verdict for all sea rescue activists!” Rackete said on Twitter. “No one should be prosecuted for aiding people in need. The EU directive on 'crimes of solidarity' needs reform,” she said.
The dreadlocked Rackete was skipper of the Sea-Watch 3, one of several ships used by international charities to rescue migrants attempting the perilous sea journey from North Africa to Europe on rickety boats.
On June 12, Rackete's ship picked up 53 migrants adrift aboard an inflatable raft off the coast of Libya.
The Italian authorities allowed some of the migrants to be taken in for health reasons but refused entry to more than 40 others, leading to a two-week stand-off at sea.
As conditions on board worsened, Rackete eventually sailed her ship to the island of Lampedusa despite an order from Italian officials not to dock there.
Rackete at the time of her arrest by Italian police on June 29. Photo: Local Team/AFP 
She was arrested on June 29, although a judge overturned that order on July 2, saying she had acted “out of necessity” because of the migrants' condition.
The high court Friday ruled that Rackete's arrest was not warranted.
Sea-Watch, the charity which runs the rescue ship, welcomed the ruling, tweeting: “Once again: Sea rescue is not a crime!”
Rackete became a left-wing hero in Italy for challenging then far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini's “closed ports” policy. Salvini is facing a potential trial for allegedly illegally detaining migrants at sea.
A tribunal has recommended he stand trial for blocking migrants on a coastguard boat last July. But under Italian law ministers cannot be tried for actions taken in office unless a parliamentary committee gives the go-ahead.
The committee is due to take a decision on Monday, though that may be postponed.
Should the trial go head, Salvini faces up to 15 years in jail if found guilty.
“For some judges a German lady, who risked killing five Italian soldiers by ramming their patrol boat, doesn't deserve jail time, but the minister who blocked dockings and human trafficking does,” Salvini said on Twitter. “That's not justice, that's a crying shame,” he said.
Salvini has accused his successor of re-opening the ports to rescued migrants, prompting more departures from Libya.
But Matteo Villa from the Institute for International Political Studies dismissed the alleged “pull factor”, and pointed out last week that while the number of arrivals dropped under Salvini, the death toll in the Mediterranean rose.  It has dropped sharply since he left office.
In the early hours of Friday the Ocean Viking rescue ship pulled 39 people to safety from a rickety wooden boat off Libya which had begun taking in water.  Medical charity Doctors Without Borders, which charters the ship along with SOS Mediterranée, said the rescue had been particularly “challenging” due to rough seas and fierce winds.