Release of refugee boat captain upheld by Italian Supreme Court

The shift in Italy’s official attitude to migrant/refugees arriving by sea was emphasized last Friday when Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation upheld the release of Captain Carola Rackete, who last year defied official instructions and docked her ship at Lampedusa to offload rescued migrants.

The captain was arrested on June 29th 2019 for allegedly intentionally ramming an Italian police vessel while docking, a charge which she denied.

The incident was part of long-running tensions within the Italian administration between the hardline anti-refugee stance of then interior minister Matteo Salvini of the Northern league, and the softer stance of their coalition partners 5Star, and the Ministry of Transportation.

Salvini attempted to ban all disembarkation of African marine casualty survivors on Italian shores. This included not only those who arrived aboard dedicated rescue vessels, but also those on merchant ships, naval vessels and the cutters of the Guarda Costiera, all of whom would have been fulfilling their obligations under international maritime law.

Rackete’s vessel was seized and she was charged with resisting orders and “violence against warships”.

Within days a regional court ordered her release, finding that the Captain had been “doing her duty saving human lives” as required by UNCLOS. The Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest appellate court has now upheld that decision.

Salvini is no longer in his post and his hardline stance – popular with many voters – could lead to him facing trial. If an Italian Senate panel lifts his immunity for actions taken while he was  minister, he could be prosecuted on kidnapping charges for preventing 131 migrants aboard the Italian Coast Guard vessel Gregoretti from coming ashore. The panel’s vote was scheduled for Monday January 20th.