Italy's Salvini brands release of migrant rescue ship captain as politically biased

Italy's Salvini brands release of migrant rescue ship captain as politically biased
FILE PHOTO: Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini attends a joint news conference following a cabinet meeting in Rome, Italy, June 11, 2019 REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo -
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Remo Casilli(Reuters)
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By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) – Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Wednesday denounced a judge who freed the German captain of a charity rescue ship accused of forcing an Italian naval blockade and suggested the ruling was politically motivated.

The national magistrates association warned that Salvini was undermining the judiciary’s independence in a case that has whipped up diplomatic tensions in Europe and threatens to compromise Salvini’s efforts to curb migrant flows from Africa.

In a surprise ruling, Judge Alessandra Vella freed Carola Rackete from house arrest on Tuesday, saying that by bringing migrants to port in defiance of the Italian navy she was looking to save lives, which trumped all other concerns.

Salvini, who heads the far-right League party, has introduced a slew of measures over the past year aimed at shutting Italy’s ports to non-governmental migrant rescue ships and regarded Vella’s decision as a blow to the rule of law.

“You have to smile in order not to cry because a ruling like that makes a real Italian cry,” Salvini said on Facebook.

“Take off your (judges’) robes and become a candidate for the left if you want to get into politics,” he said.

The National Magistrates’ Association criticised the attack. “Once again, contemptuous comments about a judicial decision, without any reference to its technical or legal content, risk fuelling a climate of hatred,” it said in a statement.

Salvini last month introduced rules effectively closing ports to rescue ships, threatening transgressors with fines of up to 50,000 euros ($56,500) and the impounding of their boats.

Rackete’s Sea-Watch ship was the first NGO vessel to challenge the rules. After waiting in international waters for more than two weeks with some 41 migrants picked up from seas off Libya, she decided to enter Lampedusa on Saturday, defying naval orders and hitting a police patrol boat in the process.

Rackete, 31, faced up to 10 years in prison on possible charges of endangering the lives of four servicemen aboard the patrol boat. Justifying her ruling, Judge Vella said the captain had been following her duty and played down the collision.

Salvini called Rackete, who has gone into hiding since the ruling, a “rich and spoilt German girl”.

“Go back to Germany and do damage there and put peoples’ lives at risk there,” he said. “Let Italians take care of Italy.”

A spokeswoman for Germany’s Sea-Watch charity said the court order restored some “dignity” to Italy.

“I want to believe that if minister Salvini were on board one of our ships in a rescue situation, he would be the first to lend a helping hand. If he didn’t, he’d be a monster,” the group’s spokeswoman, Giorgia Linardi, told reporters.

Rackete still faces possible separate charges of aiding illegal immigration and is expected to be questioned by magistrates in Sicily later this month.

Salvini had promised to expel her from Italy if she was freed from house arrest, but the forthcoming questioning has scotched that move as well.

“This signorina today can go to Portofino to sip coffee, she could go sunbathing in Lampedusa, she could go shopping in Rome,” Salvini said. “It is a disgraceful sentence.”

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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