VALLETTA, Malta – The German captain of a private ship that rescues migrants pleaded innocent on Monday to charges he entered Maltese waters illegally and without proper boat registration.
At the arraignment hearing in Valletta, Malta's capital, Maltese prosecutors asked a magistrate to order the confiscation of the vessel Lifeline.
With Italy's new populist government cracking down on private rescue vessels, Malta, too, has taken a hard line against these groups. It has also rebuffed Rome's insistence it let them disembark at Maltese ports the hundreds of migrants they save.
The Lifeline rescued 234 migrants in waters off Libya, one of the latest operations to save people from the unseaworthy boats used by traffickers in the Mediterranean.
Malta last week gave the ship safe harbor but only after Italy and seven other nations agreed to each take some of the migrants, in addition to Malta.
"We did the right thing," said the Lifeline captain, Claus-Peter Reisch, after the arraignment.
The 57-year-old German was charged with using the boat in Maltese waters without proper registration or license. That charge also incorporates the allegation of entering Maltese waters illegally.
Bail was set at 10,000 euros ($11,600). The captain was ordered to deposit his passport in court and sign in at a police station weekly.
Several hundred thousand migrants have arrived in Italy after sea rescue in recent years, and its new government now aims to prevent this. It refused to let the Lifeline dock.
Defense lawyer Cedric Mifsud told reporters this his client and Lifeline appeared to be a "scapegoat" for a wider squabbling by European Union countries over how to manage the flood of migrants to Europe's southern shores.
"What we hope is that this case is not a symptom of the current Mediterranean climate, where governments are closing the EU's borders and targeting rescue NGOs for doing the jobs that governments should be doing," Mifsud said.
As for Malta, he added: "we suspect the Maltese government is picking on the Lifeline incident to make a political statement at (the) Brussels level, that borders need to be closed and that Europe will not tolerate NGOs rescuing refugees out at sea."
Some members of Lifeline's crew turned up at the court wearing T-shirts bearing the word "Save Lives." A white sheet emblazoned with the phrase, "Rescue ships blocked 400 dead" was held outside the courthouse.
The phrase apparently referred to the many migrants who are believed to have drowned in recent days off Libya. Italy and its EU partners say the Libyan coast guard should carry out rescues in its search-and-rescue area. Private aid groups have contended lives were lost because their rescue boat ships either aren't at sea, due to legal woes, like that of the Lifeline, or because Italy's coast guard says those rescues are Libya's responsibility.
coordination center has said those rescues fall into the operations area of the Libyan counterparts.
The Libyan coast guard itself, already given training and equipment from Italy, says it needs more aid to properly save lives.
Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, deputy premier in the government, leads an anti-migrant party. Many in his base associate migrants with crime. He has vowed to let no more aid groups' rescue vessels dock in Italy.