The Catania Public Prosecutor's Office has ordered the seizure of migrant rescue ship the Aquarius — and is investigating 24 people on charges of illegal waste disposal.
Two shipping agents and members of the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which runs the Aquarius, are among those being investigated.
The boat is being held as an asset because the prosecutor said 460 thousand euros was saved by not disposing of its waste correctly.
What has happened?
According to a statement released by the prosecutor's office, the suspects are “systematically sharing, planning and carrying out a criminal project of illegal disposal of a large quantity of hazardous waste at infectious risk, health and other, deriving from the relief activities."
It referred to the relief activities of migrants on board NGO boat Vos Prudence, from March 2017 to July 2017, and on the Aquarius, from January 2017 to May 2018.
The statement also said investigations revealed that the suspects were "aware of the danger of the clothes worn by migrants, as a source of transmission of viruses or pathogens" contracted during the trip on board the Aquarius.
Francesco Gianino, the owner of the Mediterranean Shipping Agency (M.S.A.), which acts as an intermediary between MSF and the companies in charge of the collection and disposal of ships' waste, was recorded in a wiretapped conversation last year advising Vos Prudence not to declare the waste due to high costs.
"If you talk to the services (companies in charge of the disposal) we risk destroying what we have created in the last two to three years. Other ports ask you for €3,000 or €5,000 or leave it on board because they don't want to deal with that kind of waste. Waste is not a joke! Waste is serious: it has to be classified, there is a system of codes. For waste, you go to jail", Gianino said.
What has MSF and M.S.A said in response?
Euronews has contacted M.S.A for comment.
Karline Kleijer, head of the emergeny department for MSF, spoke directly to Euronews.
A statement was also put up on MSF's website.
It said: "We strongly condemn the decision of the Italian judicial authorities to seize the Aquarius ship for alleged irregularities in the disposal of onboard waste."
It described the action as a "disproportionate and instrumental measure, aimed at criminalising for the umpteenth time the medical-humanitarian action at sea".
"We reiterate full willingness to cooperate with the Italian authorities, but we challenge the reconstruction of the Public Prosecutor's Office and categorically reject the accusation of having organised any illegal activity aimed at illicit waste traffic," it added.
Gabriele Eminente, General Director of MSF Italy, spoke in a press conference.
He said: "We need time to understand what happened and, if there are responsibilities, we need to understand where.
"The accusation that is being brought to us, and the seizure of the Aquarius ship, seem to us to be disproportionate.
"We are absolutely surprised and indignant. We are being accused of setting up a criminal organization aimed at illicit waste traffic - the same organization that for 50 years, has been saving lives in 72 countries around the world & received a Nobel Peace Prize," he said.
Where is the Aquarius now?
The Aquarius is currently moored in the French port of Marseille after the Panama Maritime Authority (PMA) revoked the registration of its flag, meaning it could no longer continue its search and rescue operations once it docked.
MSF blamed Italy at the time for putting political pressure on Panama.
In September, Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, denied the claim.
However, Salvini has made no secret of his opinions on the work of the Aquarius – and is known for pushing anti-immigration policies.
What reaction has there been?
On hearing the news today, Salvini tweeted that he “did well to block the ships of NGOs" - referring to his past resistance.
[Headline was changed to reflect that the prosecutors in Catania, Sicily have ordered the seizure of the ship, not Salvini directly.]