2018 detention of Sea Watch vessel justified by paperwork problems, court rules

Maltese port authorities prohibited the vessel from leaving Valletta on claims that paperwork checks were holding up the permit

The First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional jurisdiction has rejected a breach of rights claim filed by Sea-Watch e.V, over the detention by the Maltese authorities of its vessel Sea-Watch 3 in June 2018, noting that the detention was justified in view of administrative shortcomings and doubts about insurance.

On 16 June 2018, the Sea-Watch 3 entered Valletta port for maintenance and a scheduled certification inspection, before asking for permission to leave the port on 30 June. The Maltese port authorities did not issue the necessary permission for it to leave, however, initially claiming that “checks” were holding up the permit. On 13 July, after almost two weeks in port, the authorities sent a letter explaining that they were awaiting results of a Dutch flagstate inspection, which had occurred a week earlier.

Despite everything allegedly being in order, the authorities had refused to consent to allow the vessel to set sail from Valletta, said the NGO.

Towards the end of August that year, the ship had been informed that it would finally be receiving authorisation, but this was cancelled at the last minute without explanation. When the ship was finally allowed to sail on 22 October, almost 4 months from its intended departure date, there was no formal decision or change in circumstances, it said.

Sea-Watch had alleged that the authorities were “assisting the Government in its work to stop [rescue] vessels operated by NGOs.”

The holding of a rescue ship until the end of the crossing season was an “unabashed abuse of power” argued the NGO’s lawyers, asking the court to declare their rights as having been infringed and to award damages

But in a decision handed down earlier today, Mr Justice Lawrence Mintoff ruled that any interference with the owners’ rights had been carried out under the Port Regulations.

He observed that the Valletta Harbour Master had testified that the vessel had not been registered correctly and was classed as a motor yacht while being used as a sea-going ship. The master of the vessel also presented qualifications which weren’t in accordance with the size of the ship. The Sea-Watch 3 was insured as a search and rescue vessel, but there were clauses in the insurance cover which excluded liability in respect of stowaways and refuges. This also cast doubt on whether or not its operation was insured, the Harbour Master had said.

Moreover, the plaintiffs hadn’t brought proof of title relative to the vessel, said the court.

The judge agreed with the defendant’s argument that the measures employed by Malta “certainly didn’t lead to the total deprivation of property,” and therefore didn’t fall within the parameters of Article 37 of the Constitution.

The plaintiff’s case was dismissed and it was ordered to suffer two thirds of the costs of the case.