The captain of a rescue ship carrying 42 people has been arrested for breaking a naval blockade by an Italian military vessel that was trying to stop the vessel from disembarking in Lampedusa.
After a two-week standoff with Italian authorities, Carola Rackete, docked the German boat Sea-Watch 3 in the Sicilian port on Saturday in defiance of a ban by the country’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini.
Rackete said she was determined to risk berthing because the situation on board the ship was “now more desperate than ever”.
Salvini, who has closed Italian waters to NGO rescue vessels, leaving several boats stranded at sea for weeks, said in a Facebook video that his patience had run out. “We will use every lawful means to stop an outlaw ship which puts dozens of migrants at risk for a dirty political game.”
Sea-Watch rescued a group of people from an inflatable raft drifting off the coast of Libya on 12 June, but declined to have them disembark in Tripoli, and instead went towards Lampedusa.
“Libya is not a safe country,” said Giorgia Linardi, a spokeswoman for Sea-Watch, in Italy. “Forcibly taking rescued people back to a war-torn country, having them imprisoned and tortured, is a crime that we will never commit.’’
After two weeks, and with conditions onboard in a torrid state and no options left, Rackete said she decided to enter Italian waters and face the consequences.
The government introduced rules on 14 June that closed ports to rescue ships and threatened them with fines of up to €50,000 (£44,800) and an impounding of the vessel.
In a video released by Sea-Watch, Rackete said: “I know this is risky and that I will probably lose the boat, but the 42 shipwrecked on board are exhausted. I will bring them to safety.”
a military patrol boat tried to stop the vessel entering the port, moving back and forth to prevent it from docking. However, Rackete continued the manoeuvre, risking ramming into the military boat.
Linardi said: “Captain Carola had no other choice. For 36 hours she had declared a state of necessity, which was ignored by Italian authorities.”
The lawyers for the German NGO said: “It was a desperate decision, given the delay to disembark the migrants who were exhausted after being stranded at sea for 17 days.”
Salvini tweeted on Saturday: “The behaviour from the captain of the pirate ship was criminal. She tried to ram a military patrol boat, putting the lives of the officials at risk.”
After the docking, Rackete was greeted by lengthy applause from about 100 people who had arrived on the quay to support her.
The 42 people were eventually disembarked and Rackete was arrested by the police on charges of resistance and violence against warships. She is under house arrest, Sea-Watch lawyers have confirmed to the Guardian. The day before, prosecutors in Agrigento had placed Rackete under investigation for aiding illegal immigration.
In recent days, a group of activists have launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay the legal fees of Sea-Watch. In just a few days, the initiative has reached more than €350,000.