[WATCH] Lifeline captain's sea licence was for coastal waters, court hears

Claus-Peter Reisch, the captain of the migrant rescue vessel Lifeline, was charged in a Maltese court over the ship's lack of proper registration • He is granted bail as the ship remains impounded by the authorities

Lifeline activists are protesting against the decision by Malta and Italy to close their ports to migrant rescue vessels (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Lifeline activists are protesting against the decision by Malta and Italy to close their ports to migrant rescue vessels (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Captain Claus-Peter Reisch (left) exiting the courthouse in Valletta with two activists from the Lifeline (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Captain Claus-Peter Reisch (left) exiting the courthouse in Valletta with two activists from the Lifeline (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Lifeline captain's sea licence was for coastal waters, court hears

Updated at 6.28pm with clarification on request for case to be heard in English

The captain of the Lifeline, a migrant rescue vessel that berthed in Malta last Wednesday, has a sea licence that qualifies him to sail boats in coastal waters, at a range of 30 nautical miles, the court heard.

Magistrate Joe Mifsud (left) will be hearing the Lifeline captain case (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Magistrate Joe Mifsud (left) will be hearing the Lifeline captain case (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

Lifeline captain Claus-Peter Reisch was charged in a Maltese court on Monday morning over what the police claim is the ship's irregular registration. Activists from the ship held banners outside the courthouse, emphasising that saving people was not a crime.

Taking the witness stand in front of Magistrate Joe Mifsud, police Inspector Mario Haber said Reisch's sea licence was limited to coastal waters. The Lifeline carried out rescue operations on the high seas, way outside the coastal waters of Italy and Malta.

In court, Haber said the ship was registered with a Dutch yacht club. The Dutch authorities had confirmed the Netherlands was not the flag state, as claimed by the captain.

Lifeline activists protesting in front of the law courts in Malta (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Lifeline activists protesting in front of the law courts in Malta (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

The police insisted the charges were not related to human smuggling or trafficking.

Lifeline captain Claus-Peter Reisch posing with activists from his ship outside the law courts in Valletta
Lifeline captain Claus-Peter Reisch posing with activists from his ship outside the law courts in Valletta

The court said it would carry out a site inspection of the vessel and appointed experts to survey the ship and its computers. The defence objected, insisting this had nothing to do with the charges but Magistrate Mifsud insisted the court had discretion on the matter.

The court had earlier turned down a request by an Italian lawyer of the German NGO, Corrado Giuliano, for proceedings to be heard in English. Magistrate Mifsud insisted on proceedings being carried out in Maltese, adding that if the case were to be heard in Italy, proceedings would have been carried out in Italian.

However, it later transpired the lawyer was not part of the defence team, which is why his request was dismissed. A translation to German is being provided throughout proceedings. The defence lawyers did not ask for proceedings to be carried out in English.

Reisch was interrogated by the police over 'flag issues', soon after the ship was allowed to berth in Malta after a weeklong ordeal with 234 migrants aboard.

The captain has been granted bail against a personal guarantee of €10,000.

Background to the story

The Lifeline was accused of acting as a rescue vessel when it is registered as a pleasure craft in the Netherlands. However, doubts have also been cast on whether the ship is authorised to fly the Dutch flag after the authorities in the Netherlands said it was not registered there.

Sources close to the ship, who spoke to MaltaToday had said that many boats in the Netherlands had a pleasure boat licence. "This is the norm for boats under a certain tonnage," the sources said.

The ship captain was accused by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of precipitating the Lifeline crisis when he ignored orders from the Rome rescue coordination centre during last week's rescue.

12:06 That's it from the courthouse in Valletta. Thank you for following. Kurt Sansone
12:06 Case continues on 5 July at 11.30am. Kurt Sansone
12:05 Bail conditions also restrict the captain to sleeping on the ship and signing a bail book once a week. Kurt Sansone
12:01 The captain is granted bail against a personal guarantee of €10,000. He is to deposit his passport in court. Kurt Sansone
11:58 The defence strongly objects to this, insisting it is not tied to the charges. However, the court says it has discretion to do so. Kurt Sansone
11:58 The court appoints Pierre Zammit Endrich and Martin Bajada to inspect the contents of the vessel and its computers. Kurt Sansone
11:55 The defence: "We aren't ISIS here.” The prosecution: “We haven't excluded this… we cannot exclude adding charges in future.” Kurt Sansone
11:52 The defence is objecting to surveyors being sent on board because of the massive expense involved when the charges are only about the flag state. Court insists it will not make its decision solely on photos. Kurt Sansone
11:51 INFO POINT: The Lifeline berthed at Boiler Wharf in Senglea and has been prevented from leaving Malta. Kurt Sansone
11:50 The court is now considering what to do with the ship. By law, a skeleton crew is required to remain on board. But the court is restricting access to it to preserve evidence. Kurt Sansone
11:48 Defence: "Why are you insisting that it’s a pleasure boat?" Police inspector: "There is no registration and we are emphasising that." Kurt Sansone
11:47 Defence lawyer starts speaking of the political wrangle between Malta and Italy but he is cut short by the magistrate. “I don't care what the politicians say. Haber took an oath when he became a policeman. We follow that oath,” the magistrate says. Kurt Sansone
11:44 The police inspector says the documentation provided by the captain was a photocopy. The police realised that the original evidence was in a safe on the ship and the captain was not aware that the original document was on board. Kurt Sansone
11:42 The defence lawyer insists the charges are being filed on hearsay from what the Dutch authorities told the police. Kurt Sansone
11:42 Haber says the investihation into the Lifeline is the same as that carried out into the boat that arrived yesterday in Marsaskala, and all previous ones. Kurt Sansone
11:39 The magistrate intervenes: “God forbid that we should act because of media pressure.” Kurt Sansone
11:39 The defence lawyer asks if the investigation was triggered by the international media interest in the case. Kurt Sansone
11:39 “Neither is it a case of human smuggling,” Haber adds. Kurt Sansone
11:37 Haber tells the court this is the first time that the police have arraigned a captain of a ship for carrying migrants. However, he clarifies this is “not a human trafficking investigation”. Kurt Sansone
11:37 The lawyer asks the inspector whether he checked where the ship was registered before the Netherlands. "I didn't feel it was necessary, what matters is the current registration," Haber says. Kurt Sansone
11:34 Cross examined by defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud, the police inspector says that Transport Malta representatives had confirmed with the Dutch flag state that the registration for the Lifeline was invalid. Kurt Sansone
11:32 Haber exhibits a number of documents taken from the vessel, including the captain's licence which states that he is qualified to sail power driven, or sailing yachts in coastal waters not more than 30 nautical miles from shore. Kurt Sansone
11:32 The court hears how the captain showed the police an email from the Dutch Economy Ministry, which seemed to confirm that they were aware of its use as a rescue vessel but the Dutch authorities said this had nothing to do with the registration. Kurt Sansone
11:29 “Certainly, the yacht is not registered with the Netherlands. It is registered with a Dutch yacht club but it isn't the flag state,” Haber tells the court. Kurt Sansone
11:28 The police inspector says the irregularity concerns the registration of the ship, which is not as it should be. Haber says the Dutch authorities had twice confirmed that the ship's registration is incorrect. Kurt Sansone
11:27 The court hears how the ship was involved in more than one rescue and asked the authorities for permission to disembark. The captain had no preference as to whether the place should be Malta or Italy. Kurt Sansone
11:27 The captain was questioned upon arrival in Malta in the presence of lawyer Gianluca Cappitta. Kurt Sansone
11:26 “They were given permission by Malta and docked at Boiler Wharf in Senglea with 233 passengers as one had been evacuated for medical reasons.” Kurt Sansone
11:25 Police inspector explains that the vessel had made a request to Malta and Italy for a safe harbour. Kurt Sansone
11:24 Haber: "Malta knew of the vessel since 21 June as it was involved in the picking up of immigrants from the sea." Kurt Sansone
11:22 Police Inspector Mario Haber presents photos of the ship. The court is expected to visit the ship at some stage of proceedings. Kurt Sansone
11:19 The court turns down a request by an Italian lawyer representing the NGO for the case to be heard in English. Kurt Sansone
11:19 Magistrate Joe Mifsud says that he has “a certain view” on migration but he is not deciding on whether the rescued people are refugees. He has to decide only on the charges related to maritime affairs. Kurt Sansone
11:18 Before the sitting has even started the parties are discussing on how best to proceed with the case. Defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud says Reisch is not a “usual accused”. “He has saved 240 people.” Kurt Sansone
11:12 Reisch has been arraigned by court summons, not under arrest. Some crew members are inside the courthouse to offer moral support. Kurt Sansone
11:04 Lawyers Gianluca Cappitta, Cedric Mifsud and Neil Falzon are defence for Reisch. Kurt Sansone
11:01 Reisch is being arraigned in a Valletta District sitting. Inspectors Darryl Borg and Mario Haber are prosecuting. Dr Adrian Attard has been appointed maritime law expert, Col. Alexander Dalli a technical expert and Martin Bajada, IT expert. Kurt Sansone
10:53 Activists from the Lifeline are outside court protesting the decision to block NGO rescue vessels and insisting that saving people is not a crime. Kurt Sansone
10:51 The ship captain, Reisch, was interrogated at length by the police upon disembarking the migrants last week. Kurt Sansone
10:46 The Lifeline is a vessel operated by a German organisation. It rescued 234 migrants at sea but was refused entry by Malta and Italy. The authorities say the ship disobeyed orders from the Rome rescue coordination centre. It was only allowed to berth in Malta after an ad hoc agreement between eight EU member states and Norway, on how the migrants will be distributed. Kurt Sansone
10:42 Meanwhile, the International Organisation for Migration reports that migrant drownings off Libya's coast over the weekend have pushed the death toll in the Mediterranean over 1,000 this year. Kurt Sansone
10:38 Good morning. We are waiting for the court case against Lifeline captain Claus-Peter Reisch to start. Kurt Sansone

It is understood that the Italian authorities had informed the Lifeline that the Libyan coastguard was going to rescue the migrants but the captain went ahead with the operation, before heading northward towards European shores.

However, sources close to the ship told MaltaToday that all orders were obeyed "except the order to return to Tripoli". Human rights groups and the UN consider Libya to be unsafe for migrants, with many reporting being tortured and raped.

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