LAMPEDUSA, Sicily (AP) — The German captain of a humanitarian rescue ship with 40 asylum-seekers aboard rammed an Italian border police motorboat as she docked at a tiny Mediterranean island Saturday in defiance of Italy’s anti-migrant interior minister and was immediately arrested as jeering onlookers shouted “handcuffs, handcuffs.”
The migrants hugged personnel of the German Sea-Watch charity who helped them during 17 days at sea following rescue from an unseaworthy vessel launched by Libya-based human traffickers. Some kissed the ground of Lampedusa after disembarking from Sea-Watch 3 before dawn.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had refused to let the migrants disembark on Lampedusa, which is closer to north Africa than to the Italian mainland until other European Union countries agreed to take in the asylum-seekers. Five nations so pledged on Friday: Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal.
But the humanitarian rescue operation ended dramatically and violently, when the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3′s captain, Carola Rackete, decided she could no longer wait for permission to dock given the odyssey of the migrants aboard.
“It’s enough. After 16 days following the rescue, #SeaWatch3 enters in port,” the organization tweeted early Saturday shortly before the ship started heading dockside.
The captain steered her vessel toward the island before dawn, ramming the much smaller motorboat, which was blocking Sea-Watch 3′s path to the dock.
In past years, Lampedusa had won international praise for its generous welcome to many of the hundreds of thousands of rescued migrants who were brought ashore in the last few years.
But even as the migrants’ numbers dwindled as Italy cracked down on private rescue ships, especially after the populists came to power a year ago, many Italians lost patience toward the foreigners, including economic migrants ineligible for asylum. Salvini’s anti-migrant League party has soared in popularity in recent local and European Parliament elections.
Some on the island applauded when the migrants disembarked. But another group yelled insults, including “Gypsy, go home” to the captain. A senator from the opposition Democrats, Davide Faraone, filmed the intense scene and then posted it on Twitter.
“You must handcuff her immediately,” a woman shouted before Rackete was hustled into a police car.
Her lawyer, Leonardo Marino, told Italian state TV that she was arrested for investigation of resisting a warship, a reference to plowing into the motorboat of the customs and border police. No one was injured but the motorboat’s side was damaged. If convicted, Rackete risks up to 10 years in prison.
She also risks a fine as high as 50,000 euros ($58,000) under a recent Salvini-backed law cracking down on private rescue vessels. Any fine might be covered by a reported 100,000 euros supporters in Italy recently donated to help Sea-Watch.
Salvini slammed her defiance.
“I have asked for the arrest of an outlaw who put at risk” the lives of the border police on the motorboat, Salvini told RAI state radio. He also ordered that authorities sequester the ship, “which went around the Mediterranean breaking laws.”
Sea-Watch defended the captain’s actions. “She enforced the rights of the rescued people to be disembarked to a place of safety,” Sea-Watch said in a statement.
But a Sicily-based prosecutor, Luigi Patronaggio, indicated otherwise. “Humanitarian reasons cannot justify inadmissible acts against those who work at sea for the safety of everybody,” ANSA quoted the prosecutor as saying.
The captain had her supporters in her home country, including a leader of Germany’s Green party, Robert Habeck.
“The arrest of captain Rackete shows the nefariousness of the Italian government and the dilemma of European refugee policy,” he told German media group RND. Habeck added that the “real scandal is the drownings in the Mediterranean, the lack of legal pathways to flee and the absence of a European distribution mechanism.”
His outrage was echoed by the head of Germany’s Protestant Church, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm.
“A young woman is arrested in a European country because she saved human lives and wanted to bring the rescued people to land safely,” he said in a statement. ”(This is) a disgrace for Europe!”
Thousands of migrants have drowned trying to reach European shores in recent years aboard migrant smugglers’ unseaworthy vessels.
Democratic Party lawmaker Graziano Delrio, after disembarking himself, likened her actions to that of a driver of a Red Cross ambulance “which goes through a red light” to speed ailing patients to a hospital.
Sea-Watch 3 had rescued 53 people on June 12, but later 13 of the migrants were taken to Italy for medical care.
Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome.
SOURCE: ANNALISA CAMILLI and FRANCES D’EMILIO, AP