The ocean liner was sailing Mediterranean waters, making its way toward Spain’s eastern coast.
It had departed Palma, the capital of the Spanish island of Mallorca, and by early Thursday morning it was only hours from Valencia. That’s when a 17-year-old British passenger, who was traveling with her parents, alleged that an 18-year-old man forced her into his cabin on board and raped her, according to the local newspaper Levante-EMV.
The girl, who was traveling on the MSC Divina, a 4,300-passenger cruise ship, said she escaped and told her parents, who reported the incident to crew members.
Levante-EMV reported that after a police investigation, the man, who was identified only as an Italian citizen, was arrested. However, he was later released after a judge in Valencia determined he did not have jurisdiction over the case because the alleged sexual assault would have occurred in international waters.
The judge said it would be up to other governments — Panama, where the cruise ship is registered; Italy, where the alleged assailant lives; or the United Kingdom, where the 17-year-old lives — to investigate the incident, according to the newspaper.
Martin Davies, director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University, said cruise ship passengers may be surprised to learn that they are “not as protected by the law as they think they are.”
“Once they’re in international waters,” he told The Washington Post, “there’s much less legal protection than they realize.”
Davies said when it comes to prosecuting criminal cases in international waters, the law is “vague” and “underdeveloped,” but he added that “the country of the flag comes first.” In this case, Davies said, Panama would have the first right to prosecute, because the vessel is registered there.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), “Every State shall effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying its flag.”
In particular every State shall:
(a) maintain a register of ships containing the names and particulars of ships flying its flag, except those which are excluded from generally accepted international regulations on account of their small size; and
(b) assume jurisdiction under its internal law over each ship flying its flag and its master, officers and crew in respect of administrative, technical and social matters concerning the ship.
Davies said international law also permits countries to hold their citizens accountable in criminal cases, as well as seek justice for their victims. That would mean both Italy and the United Kingdom may have jurisdiction, though Davies said those countries would first have to determine whether Panama intended to prosecute. He said he is not familiar with those countries’ laws.
Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that between 2002 and 2007, the agency investigated 184 crimes on cruise ships, most of which were sexual and physical assaults.
Most of the sexual assaults involved alcohol and occurred in private cabins aboard the vessel, according to the FBI.
Earlier this week, the mother of another teenage girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted aboard the MSC Divina agreed to settle a lawsuit she had brought against the cruise line for allegedly failing to protect her child, according to the Miami Herald. The newspaper reported that the lawsuit claimed that after the ship departed from Miami in 2017, the girl, who was 14 at the time, was assaulted inside a candy shop on board.
Regarding the recent case in Spain, MSC Cruises said that it could not comment because of the ongoing investigation.
“Any questions can and should be addressed to the relevant authorities,” MSC Cruises spokeswoman Paige Rosenthal said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Additionally, this is a matter that relates to guests who were traveling on board one of our ships. Within this context, our company is fully cooperating with the authorities overseeing this investigation across the relevant jurisdictions, but it is not itself in any way subject to it.”