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01.07.2019 Africa

German migrant rescue captain appears in Italy court

By AFP
Sea-Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete was arrested by Italian police after docking in Lampedusa.  By Anaelle LE BOUEDEC (LOCALTEAM/AFP/File)
JUL 1, 2019 AFRICA
Sea-Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete was arrested by Italian police after docking in Lampedusa. By Anaelle LE BOUEDEC (LOCALTEAM/AFP/File)

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.

Rackete, who faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted, is likely to be released pending trial.

"My client will answer all the judge's questions," Leonardo Marino, one of Rackete's lawyers, said on arrival at the court.

"Miss Rackete acted out of necessity and had no intention of using violence", he told journalists.

'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".

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 fund-raising 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.

Rescuers had evacuated some migrants for medical reasons from the Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship before it came into port.  By Handout (Sea Watch/AFP/File) Rescuers had evacuated some migrants for medical reasons from the Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship before it came into port. By Handout (Sea Watch/AFP/File)

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".

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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