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Captain who defied Italy and brought rescued migrants to port is released from house arrest

The Sea-Watch 3 captain, Carola Rackete, defied Italy’s orders and brought rescued migrants to the Italian port of Lampedusa. (Matteo Guidelli/ANSA/AP)

ROME — Over the weekend, the captain of a humanitarian rescue vessel defied Italian orders, docked at a port with 40 migrants aboard, and was swiftly placed under house arrest.

But her detention lasted for three days.

On Tuesday, a judge in Sicily pushed back against Italy’s hard-line response to the case, lifting Carola Rackete’s house-arrest orders and indicating that she saw no grounds for the charges.

Rackete, Judge Alessandra Vella wrote, had been “saving shipwrecked individuals at sea” and “fulfilling a duty.”

Rackete, who has become an emblem of resistance against Europe’s closed-door stance toward migrants, still faces legal jeopardy, and she will be questioned next week in a separate inquiry into whether she aided illegal immigration, according to Italian news outlets. But Vella’s ruling dealt a blow to the Italian government’s broader effort to limit migration by punishing rescuers who bring their boats to shore against orders.

Those rescuers say they have a duty to find the closest safe port.

Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who has risen to popularity with his anti-migration stance, reacted angrily to the ruling and said Rackete would be sent back to her native Germany “because she’s a threat to national security.” It was unclear whether Rackete would return to Germany before her next legal proceedings in Italy, scheduled for July 9.

Rackete had captained the Sea-Watch 3, a vessel operated by a German humanitarian group that rescued 53 migrants on June 12. More than a dozen of those migrants were taken to Italy for emergency medical reasons. But the others remained on board, and Rackete found her vessel closed off from Europe, with no country willing to open its doors. Italy, the de facto landing spot for such rescued migrants until a year ago, had closed its ports after Salvini took power.

So, Rackete, after 17 days at sea, took action into her own hands, navigating the boat to the Italian port of Lampedusa — despite the risk of arrest or fines.

In a declaration included with the judge’s ruling, Rackete said the “psychological situation was getting worse every day. Many people were suffering post-traumatic stress.”

Salvini had said Rackete broke the law by entering territorial waters and by ramming a police motorboat close to the dock. After migrants were unloaded, distributed among five European countries in a diplomatic deal, Italy seized the Sea-Watch 3 vessel.

The Sea-Watch was just one of several humanitarian and commercial vessels to rescue migrants and then find itself in limbo in the Mediterranean. European countries have been unable to devise a system for handling vessels that make rescues. And rescuers say they are unwilling to return people to their jumping-off spot in warring Libya, where migrants are vulnerable to rape, torture, slavery and detention.

In a statement after the judge’s ruling, Amnesty International said that the decision “brings welcome relief to people standing for human rights,” and that Italy’s attempted punishment of rescuers — including with a new law enabling 50,000 euro fines for rescuers — was a “naked attempt to end the lifesaving work of NGOs.”

“These measures are likely to result in more needless deaths at sea and in more people being taken back to horrendous conditions in Libya,” the group said.

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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