An Italian judge ordered the release Monday of a migrant rescue ship, impounded since last month as part of an investigation in which three NGO officials are accused of aiding illegal immigration.
The ship, belonging to Spanish aid group Proactiva Open Arms, was seized in mid-March after NGO workers refused to hand over migrants saved during a rescue mission off the Libyan coast to the Libyan coastguard, instead delivering them to the Italian island of Sicily.
On Monday a judge in the Sicilian city of Ragusa said that Libya “was not yet in a position to take in rescued migrants while ensuring their fundamental rights were respected” and considered that the NGO had acted “out of necessity.”
Proactiva Open Arms founder Oscar Camps tweeted that although the decision was “good news,” it was “just the first step” as the probe into “promoting illegal immigration” continued.
The controversial rescue mission took place on 15 March after the Italian coastguard flagged up two vessels in distress 73 nautical miles off Libya to the NGO, before later clarifying that Tripoli would be coordinating the rescue operations.
The NGO began to rescue the migrants and then refused to transfer them to a Libyan speedboat which arrived later.
Public prosecutors in the Sicilian cities of Catania and Ragusa say that the migrants should have been taken to Malta, the nearest safe port, and accuse the NGO of deliberately taking them to Italy.
In response, Open Arms has said that Malta only deals with medical emergencies.
In Spain, the ship’s seizure has sparked a support movement under the slogan, “saving lives is not a crime,” with protests and an online petition which has garnered over 300,000 signatures, including those of actors Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.
The Open Arms ship is the second to be seized by Italian authorities after the Iuventa, chartered by German NGO Jugend Rettet, was held last summer.
A year ago, a dozen NGO rescue ships patrolled the Libyan coast, but now only two remain: the Aquarius operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the German-owned Sea-Watch.
Other NGOs have suspended their operations due to increased threats from the Libyan navy and a decline in departures — which have dropped 60 percent since the summer of 2017 — following controversial agreements made by Rome with Libyan authorities and militias.