Italy, Germany quarrel as migrant rescue captain readies for court

AGRIGENTO, Italy (AFP) – The fate of the German migrant rescue ship captain arrested in Italy sparked fresh tension yesterday between Rome and Berlin, which called for her release ahead of a court appearance.

Sea-Watch 3 skipper Carola Rackete was arrested after hitting a police boat while entering Lampedusa port with 40 people rescued from the Mediterranean.

Her vessel, banned from docking by Italian authorities, knocked a police speedboat while pulling up to the pier in Lampedusa last Saturday after a two-week stand-off at sea.

The 31-year-old captain was accused of putting the speedboat and the safety of its occupants at risk and she faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

Rackete was expected to appear in court in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, and is likely to be released pending trial.

“In our view the end of due judicial process can only result in the release of Carola Rackete,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas yesterday told reporters.

Sea-Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete, from Germany, waves as she arrives in the Sicilian port of Porto Empedocle, escorted by Italian police, from Lampedusa, Italy. – AP

“I will again make this clear to Italy.”

Maas had already said last Saturday that someone who saves lives “cannot be a criminal”.

That prompted far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to retort that Maas should “invite his fellow citizens not to break Italian laws”.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he had been asked about the case by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a summit in Brussels, but told her he “cannot intervene to dictate how judges behave”.

France was also quick to criticise the arrest, accusing Rome of creating “hysteria”.

Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella called for those involved to “tone it down”.

If the skipper is released from what is effectively house arrest, Salvini might enforce an order already prepared by his ministry to expel her from the country.

The case sparked two fund-raising appeals which have collectively raised almost EUR1.2 million (USD1.36 million).

Rackete picked up 53 migrants drifting on an inflatable raft off the coast of Libya on June 12.

The Italian authorities allowed 13 migrants to be taken in for health reasons but refused entry to the others.

They have now been allowed to disembark at Lampedusa and are expected to be taken in by France, Germany, Finland, Luxembourg and Portugal.

Rackete has become a left-wing hero in Italy for challenging Salvini’s “closed-ports” policy.

She was cheered and applauded by a crowd of supporters waiting for her on her arrival in Agrigento.

But she has drawn criticism from some by knocking the police boat, which was attempting to stop her from docking.

The German charity Sea-Watch has accused the Italian police of causing the incident at the port by nipping into the closing gap between the vessel and the pier.

Rackete “performed all manoeuvres very slowly, in a non-confrontational manner,” it said in a statement.

It said the police “obviously miscalculated the right time to sail away,” and insisted the vessels “only slightly touched each other”.

Salvini, who welcomed Rackete’s arrest, has described the incident as an “act of war”.

Lampedusa mayor Salvatore Martello said yesterday that 600 migrants had sailed across the Mediterranean to the tiny island in less than month, despite Salvini’s claim that the ports are closed.