Italian authorities have released a migrant-rescue boat that has been impounded for almost a month but are still investigating two of its crew on suspicion of enabling illegal immigration.
The Open Arms – which is operated by the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms and has rescued more than 5,000 people from the Mediterranean over the past three years – was seized on 19 March after it docked in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo with 218 migrants onboard.
Its crew had rescued them from a leaky raft off the coast of Libya and refused to hand them over to the Libyan coastguard, arguing that they were in international waters.
Despite reportedly being threatened with being shot, the captain of the Open Arms said he could not release them into Libyan custody because of the risk of abuse and human rights violations they could face in the North African country.
The vessel was impounded and three crew members placed under investigation. The chief prosecutor of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, has accused them of enabling illegal immigration by refusing to hand the migrants over to the Libyan coastguards.
On Monday, a judge ordered the Open Arms to be released. However, Prosecutors are still looking into whether its captain, Marc Reig, and the mission’s coordinator, Anabel Montes, should face trial on charges of enabling illegal immigration.
Riccardo Gatti, the head of the Open Arms mission, confirmed that the ship had been released but said it had been damaged by bad weather during its confiscation and would not be able to return to sea immediately.
“We are finally free and this is a first, important step,” he told the Guardian. “But the fight is still long. Our captain is still [facing charges] of enabling illegal immigration and the prosecutors in Catania are continuing with their investigations against NGOs, criminalising people who saves lives.”
Gatti said the ship’s condition meant the NGO would have to look for another vessel but was sending its sailing boat, the Astral, into the save-and-rescue zone to continue operations.
Prosecutors declined to comment, but have shelved investigations into allegations that the crew of the Open Arms was involved in “criminal association” and had been conspiring with smugglers in smuggle migrants to Europe.
The case comes amid growing concerns that NGOs are being criminalised for trying to save lives in the Mediterranean.
In August last year, Italian police seized a rescue ship operated by German NGO Jugend Rettet as part of an Italian attempt to end the migrant and refugee crisis.
Meanwhile, Helena Maleno, a Spanish journalist and human rights activist who is thought to have saved hundreds of lives by alerting maritime authorities to the plight of vulnerable migrants in the Mediterranean, has appeared in court in Morocco over allegations that she has been colluding with people traffickers.
Human Rights Watch has hit out at such draconian responses. “It is shocking that Europe has reached the point of criminalising rescue at sea,” it said in a statement last month.
“Europeans should support, not smear, people saving lives in the Mediterranean, and remember that EU and Italian policies are propping up a cycle of detention and violence in Libya, while groups like Proactiva are saving lives.”
According to figures from the International Organization for Migration, 16,847 migrants and refugees have reached Europe by sea so far this year and 557 people have died in the attempt.