Lifeline Captain testifies about rescue operation

The Lifeline was impounded by local authorities back in July after it was allowed to enter Maltese harbours following a week-long dispute over where rescued migrants on board would be allowed to disembark

The German captain of the charity-run ship Lifeline yesterday took the stand in the compilation of evidence against him.

57-year-old Claus-Peter Reisch stressed that his ship had rescued more than 200 migrants in the Mediterranean last June as he gave evidence before Magistrate Joseph Mifsud.

The Munich-born captain is currently facing charges of navigating the ship within Maltese territorial waters without the necessary licence and registration.

In court, he gave an overview of his nautical career up till the day his vessel carried out a sea rescue of 235 migrants in the waters near the Libyan coast.

Captain Reisch had decided to dedicate his career to rescue operations at sea after seeing migrant boats and floating children’s toys on the open seas.

Unable to assist, he had then decided to put his navigation experience to good use with the NGO Lifeline, carrying out six rescue missions.

Reisch said he wasn’t paid for his services.

He exhibited his ship master certification, telling the court that he had first started sailing on lakes in Bavaria at the age of 14, heading out onto the open seas at 18. Over the years, he had accumulated some 45,000 miles of sailing experience, he told the court.

Before the Lifeline’s last mission in June, the Captain explained how the vessel had first sailed to Malta on 10 June, after being repaired at Licata.

Three days later, manned by an experienced medical team, comprising a retired doctor, a nurse and five paramedics, the Lifeline set sail out of the Maltese harbour to a search and rescue area off Libya.

On June 17, the ship had first been involved in the rescue of 120 migrants who were first handed over to a cargo vessel, only to be transferred later to an Italian coastguard vessel on the open seas, once it was discovered that the cargo ship’s first port of call was Misrata, Libya.

READ MORE: Lifeline rescue vessel docks in Malta as migrants are transferred to Marsa centre

“It is an obligation to save the life of people who are in distress and difficulty at sea. All laws of the sea state this,” Reisch stressed, before moving on to the events of June 21 when at around 4am the Lifeline crew had spotted three targets on their radar.

The first of these turned out to be a rubber boat, inflated with exhaust fumes.

“It was hot, over-crowded and there was no life jacket. We had to evacuate the boat,” recalled the captain, describing the precarious conditions inside the flimsy craft which was then destroyed once all migrants aboard had been lifted to safety.

“We destroyed the rubber boat so that it could not be used again,” the Captain added.

The operation was soon to be repeated when the Lifeline approached the second target, resulting in a total of 235 migrants, among whom were 77 children, 5 babies - three of them under 4 months old - and 15 women.

With all 235 migrants on board, the Lifeline were soon approached by a Libyan coastguard vessel.

The court heard a two-minute audio recording of a radio call with the Libyan crew who were heard to repeatedly say “Go away, go away! I kill you.”

As the Libyan vessel approached the Lifeline, the captain had spotted weapons on board.

“I didn’t want weapons on my boat,” Captain Reisch recalled, describing how after some half an hour later, the Lifeline had sent its RHIB (Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat) to fetch the Libyan Captain and “a guy with a camera on board for a 20-minute discussion.”

The Libyan Captain wanted to take the 235 migrants on board his vessel but Captain Reisch had adamantly refused, insisting that this went against the Geneva Convention and urging the other Captain to search for the third rubber boat in distress that was some six miles ahead.

But by the time the Lifeline was allowed to proceed with its rescue mission, the third boat was lost.

The ship spent another seven days at sea until the Maltese authorities finally offered the ship a port of safety on 27 June.

Asked under cross-examination whether he had intended to sail to Malta, Captain Reisch promptly replied: “The authorities told me to enter harbour. My intention was to find a port of safety and such port of safety is not my choice. That’s it.”

The Captain had been “really happy” to hand over the migrants safe and sound to the Maltese authorities, as 150 of the migrants had become seasick and needed treatment.

The Lifeline’s crew had provided 500 warm meals, 150 litres of tea and breakfast daily, besides medical treatment to those in need.

“We were very happy to bring everyone alive and in much better conditions than we had picked them up,” the Captain said.

After communicating by email with the Maltese authorities, the ship was instructed to dock at Boiler Wharf.

“This was really perfect,” Captain Reisch told the court. “No one asked for documents.”

It was only a day later that he first became aware of documentation issues raised by the Maltese authorities.

Referring to his ICP certificate, the Captain explained that he had held one since 2000, making use of it on earlier occasions in Tunisia and twice in Malta.

READ MORE: Lifeline case to be decided in December, court says

“There are 25,000 other boats registered in Holland with the same certificate,” he said, stating that the Dutch authorities had never contacted him personally nor the Lifeline NGO.

It was only in September, after the Captain’s court saga had long kicked off, that he became aware of an email addressed to the Sea-Eye Foundation (not the Lifeline) whereby the Dutch authorities had declared “we acknowledge the fact that the document used as ICP could give the wrong impression. Therefore we’ve recently requested the “Watersportverbond” amend the contents of the ICP issued by them.”

Asked whether he had checked the ship’s documents before setting sail, Reisch replied, “of course! I checked the ICP (International Certificate for Pleasure craft), the registration, as well as security equipment certification to ensure that this had not expired.

Shown a document in open court, the Captain confirmed that it was one of the documents he had checked which attested that the ship was owned by Mission Lifeline NGO, carried a Dutch flag, with its homeport indicated as ‘Amsterdam.’ That certificate, issued by Watersportverbond on September 19, 2017, was valid for two years.

“So to me it looked good,” the Captain explained, adding that he had sailed on two other ships which had the same documentation and moreover, he had further reassurance on account of regular registration with Dutch authorities.

Asked whether he knew if Transport Malta had any issue concerning the Lifeline’s registration, Captain Reisch explained that, before its last mission the ship had affected some 50 refueling and replenishing operations in Malta. No-one from Transport Malta had ever visited the ship up to June 2018.

“Nobody was interested in the Lifeline but Transport Malta had the documents because our agent had to present those for checking in and checking out.”

Asked whether the Lifeline was in possession of a changed ICP, the Captain said that such a document had been recently mailed to a German address in an open envelope.

“Since July the ICP has become obsolete. Something has changed,” the Captain concluded, insisting however that when setting sail from Malta on June 13 “never had anyone said there was something wrong with these documents.”

The case continues in January.

Inspectors Mario Haber and Daryl Borg are prosecuting.

Lawyers Cedric Mifsud and Neil Falzon are defence counsel.

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