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Demonstrators hold a banner reading "Free Carola" during a vigil on July 2, 2019 in Cologne, western Germany, for Carola Rackete, a German captain of a migrant rescue ship, who was arrested in Italy. (Photo: FEDERICO GAMBARINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Judge Releases German Rescue Ship Captain, Saying Carola Rackete Was Fulfilling 'Her Duty to Protect Life'

"A big win for solidarity with all people on the move...and against the criminalization of helpers."

Julia Conley

In a rebuke of far-right Italian leader Matteo Salvini's anti-immigration policy, a judge on Tuesday ordered the release of Carola Rackete, the captain of a German rescue ship, who had been arrested for bringing African migrants to Italy.

Rackete should not be held in custody, Judge Alessandra Vella said, because she had simply been fulfilling "her duty to protect life."

The captain was arrested Saturday for hitting a police boat in June when she entered the port of Lampedusa carrying 40 migrants, who she rescued off the coast of Libya with her charity organization, Sea-Watch. She had been under house arrest in Italy since then and potentially faced up to 10 years in prison before Judge Alessandra Vella's ruling. Last year, Interior Minister Salvini ordered rescue ships to stay out of Italian ports.

"We are proud of our captain, she did exactly the right thing. She followed the law of the sea and brought people to safety. Instead of her, Matteo Salvini should be investigated for kidnapping and violation of international law." —Johannes Bayer, Sea-Watch

Rackete and Sea-Watch called Vella's decision "a big win for solidarity with all people on the move—including refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers—and against the criminalization of helpers in many countries across Europe."

Sea-Watch chairman Johannes Bayer said in a statement that the Italian government should be held accountable for shutting ports to rescue ships and for detaining Rackete.

"We are proud of our captain, she did exactly the right thing," said Bayer. "She followed the law of the sea and brought people to safety. Instead of her, Matteo Salvini should be investigated for kidnapping and violation of international law."

"I'm willing to face the consequences for my decisions, as it is to be expected by a captain," added Rackete. "What about Mr. Salvini?"

Rackete is due to appear before an Italian prosecutor again next week, facing a charge of facilitating immigration illegally. Salvini expressed outrage at Vella's decision, writing on Twitter that Rackete would be expelled from Italy.

Sea-Watch moved Rackete to a secret location following the ruling, due to threats to her safety in recent days. 

The captain found support both in her home country of Germany and in Italy since her arrest, as well as in other European countries. A campaign started in Germany raised nearly €1 million ($1.1 million), while many Italians rallied in support for Rackete and raised €435,000 ($490,000) for Sea-Watch.

Following Rackete's release, Sea-Watch turned its attention to the migrant camps in Libya where thousands are being held in inhumane conditions.

"After Free Carola it's now time to demand: Free Them All!" tweeted the organization. "Evacuate the camps in Libya!"

The group also demanded that Rackete's ship, the Sea Watch 3, be released and allowed to continue its rescue missions.

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