AGRIGENTO, Italy (Reuters) – The German captain of a charity rescue ship, arrested for defying an Italian ban on docking with migrants, arrived in a Sicilian port on Monday for her first court appearance.
Supporters applauded as Carola Rackete, 31, alighted at Agrigento on a police vessel from the Italian island of Lampedusa where she landed at the weekend with 41 Africans rescued from seas off Libya.
Rackete, a volunteer for German charity Sea-Watch, has become a symbol of divisions in Italy over the government’s policy of closing ports to non-government rescue ships.
The interior minister calls her a pirate and people-smuggler while left-wing politicians hail her as an anti-populist heroine.
Rackete had been in international waters for more than two weeks, waiting for an invitation from Italy or another European Union (EU) state to accept her ship.
“We need support to end the death of people at sea and it’s outrageous that civilians … filling a gap left by the authorities are criminalized for saving lives,” said Giorgia Lunardi, a spokeswoman for the charity.
Germany called on Monday for her release.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel at an EU meeting that it was an independent judicial matter.
“Merkel asked me about the captain and I explained that in Italy executive power is separate from the judicial one … the prime minister cannot step in. It’s in the magistrates’ hands,” Conte told reporters in Brussels.
SALVINI’S TOUGH LINE
The Italian government accuses Rackete of endangering the lives of four policemen aboard a patrol boat squeezed against the quay as the Dutch-flagged Sea-Watch 3 arrived.
She is also accused of resisting a warship order, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ jail, and of aiding people smugglers under laws introduced to deter non-government rescue ships.
Rackete’s boat was impounded and Sea-Watch could be fined upto 50,000 euros ($57,000).
Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister and leader of the ruling right-wing League party, has taken a hard stance on immigration, closing off ports and accusing fellow European nations of leaving Italy alone to deal with arrivals.
Rackete’s hearing was expected to be heard from Monday afternoon. A judge will have 48 hours to decide whether she should be released or not. Salvini said that if Rackete was released he would sign an expulsion order straightaway.
The 41 Africans were taken to a reception center on Lampedusa, with Salvini later saying other European nations had agreed to receive them.
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