Malta court overturns rescue ship captain's conviction

A Maltese appeals court has overturned a conviction of a German captain of a private ship that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean Sea

VALLETTA, Malta -- A Maltese appeals court on Tuesday overturned the conviction of a German captain of a private ship that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, declaring there was no criminal intent when he entered Maltese waters without proper registration.

Claus Peter Reisch had been found guilty in May of not having his ship registration in order and with entering Maltese waters without a permit. The Court of Criminal Appeal ruled that Reisch didn't have the specific intent to break the law. The court overturned the original judgment and revoked the 10,000 euro fine.

The Mission Lifeline vessel had been carrying 234 migrants in June 2018 when it entered Maltese waters. The rescue, one of many involving private ships of aid groups, had caused an international dispute as European countries dithered over what to do with the would-be refugees.

Eventually the vessel was allowed to dock in Malta and the migrants were distributed among EU states.

The ship, however, was impounded, and Mission Lifeline spokesman Axel Steier said that now that the case is over, the aid group can get it back.

“We are very relieved and happy. Now we know that we did everything right,” Steier said in a statement.

For his part, Reisch tweeted: “Wow, incredible... I won.”

Mission Lifeline has acquired a new vessel that is being outfitted in Germany and plans to resume its rescues in the spring, Steier said. He said the group can no longer use the original ship because no country will offer its flag under “acceptable conditions.”

Steier told The Associated Press the verdict sends a message that rescuing migrants is “not a criminal thing, it’s a duty.”