The captain of a migrant rescue ship has pleaded innocent to charges that he entered Malta’s waters illegally as the EU island nation attempted to crack down on the influx of asylum seekers arriving on its shores.
Claus-Peter Reisch and his crew on board the private Dutch vessel Lifeline picked up 234 migrants who were stranded in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya last month.
The Lifeline had been separately accused by France and Italy, who recently refused to allow another charity boat to dock on its shores, of ignoring international rescue laws.
The boat was only permitted to dock in Malta last week after several other EU countries, as well as Malta, agreed to take in the asylum seekers on board.
But Maltese authorities confiscated the boat on Monday and launched a criminal case against German national Mr Reisch, 57. Prosecutors say the vessel is not registered anywhere and is therefore sailing without a flag.
Speaking after his arraignment in Valletta, Mr Reisch said he and his crew had done “the right thing”, while his supporters and human rights groups accused Malta of making the captain into a “scapegoat”.
"I don't think I have done anything unlawful. I saved 234 lives and assisted in two other rescue operations" with Mission Lifeline, Mr Reisch said.
"Out at sea, women, men and children are dying. I didn't see the pictures of drowned bodies in the newspaper. I saw it with my own eyes," he added. "So when politicians say this should be stopped, maybe they should join us for one trip."
His bail was set at 10,000 euros, (Dh43,000) and he must remain in Malta, checking in at a police station weekly.
Mr Reisch is due back in court on Thursday morning when police will present more evidence against him.
Neil Falzon, director of Maltese human rights group, the Aditus Foundation, who is assisting Mr Reisch, said the charges brought against him had a political motive, given the current EU discourse about closing borders to migrants.
"We're a bit concerned that the present case is really a political sign to NGOs out there who are rescuing migrants and refugees- and all NGOs working with refugees- that your work is not appreciated and that governments will do their best to limit your activities," Mr Falzon told The National.
Malta, a tiny island nation which lies between Libya and Italy, announced it was officially closing its ports to NGO ships last week in a decision that was criticised by charities as well as Christian leaders in the country.
In a joint statement on Monday, 17 organisations said the consequences of the government’s decision were “potentially fatal” and urged them to reconsider.
Charities believe the Libyan coastguard is ill-equipped to deal with such rescue missions alone, citing the deaths of 100 hundred migrants in the seas off Libya at the weekend.
The Libyan coastguard said on Tuesday that a shipwreck off its coast had left 63 people missing.
More than 1,000 people have died in the Mediterranean so far in 2018, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The IOM said the increase in deaths was down to people smugglers exploiting migrants desperate to leave before there are further crackdowns on Mediterranean crossings by the EU.
At an EU summit last week, leaders agreed to set up "disembarkation platforms" outside the bloc, most likely in Libya, to discourage migrants from making the perilous crossing.
On Tuesday Italy announced it would give 12 boats to Libya to curb the flow on migrants to its shores, which it said would help "fight human trafficking".
Italy’s new populist government said it would take responsibility for the maintenance of the boats until the end of the year as well as offering training to the coastguard, in an aid package worth 2.5 million euros.
Italy, a top entry point for migrants from outside the EU, also closed its ports to humanitarian rescue ships last week. The country’s right wing interior minister Matteo Salvini has frequently accused the ships of aiding people traffickers with their presence.
NGO ships started arriving in the Mediterranean the migration crisis of 2015-2016 when more than 100 million people crossed into the EU, many of whom travelled via the sea from North Africa.