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article imageGerman migrant rescue captain appears in Italy court

By AFP     Jul 1, 2019 in World

The German captain of a migrant rescue ship appeared in an Italian court on Monday, as her case sparked fresh tension between Rome and Berlin.

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

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

The 31-year-old, who was escorted by police to court in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, stands accused of putting the speedboat and the safety of its occupants at risk and could face up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

Monday's court hearing was on the validity of her arrest and the judge's ruling is expected on Tuesday.

After the hearing, one of Rackete's lawyers, Alessandro Gamberini, said her client had acted out of necessity as "the situation was getting progressively worse" on the ship and risked becoming "uncontrollable".

- 'Must go free' -

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the hearing's only result can be "the release of Carola Rackete".

"I will again make this clear to Italy," he added.

Maas had already said that someone who saves lives "cannot be a criminal".

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini retorted that Maas should "invite his fellow citizens not to break Italian laws".

Sea-Watch captain Carola Rackete could face up to 10 years in jail if convicted
Sea-Watch captain Carola Rackete could face up to 10 years in jail if convicted
Giovanni ISOLINO, AFP

Germany's parliamentary speaker and veteran CDU heavyweight, Wolfgang Schaeuble, said he had "nothing in principle against legal proceedings" but hoped for "other solutions" to the case.

Salvini, who has described the incident as an "act of war", said Monday that he had not changed his mind about "the German criminal".

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he had been asked about the case by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, 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 freed on bail, Salvini might enforce an order already prepared by his ministry to expel her from the country.

The case has sparked two fundraising appeals for Rackete's legal costs, which have collectively raised almost 1.2 million euros ($1.36 million).

- Applause -

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 40 others.

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

Dreadlocked Rackete has become a leftwing hero in Italy for challenging Salvini's "closed-ports" policy.

An NGO Sea Watch pictures shows rescuers evacuating a young migrant for medical reasons Thursday
An NGO Sea Watch pictures shows rescuers evacuating a young migrant for medical reasons Thursday
Handout, Sea Watch/AFP

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

The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, offered the entire Sea Watch crew honorary citizenship.

But Rackete 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".

Lampedusa mayor Salvatore Martello said Monday 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.

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