Sea-Watch claims authorities abused their power by preventing rescue ship from leaving

Towards August of last year, Sea-Watch had been informed that it would receive authorisation to leave port but was unexpectedly retracted without a valid explanation

The Sea-Watch vessel
The Sea-Watch vessel

Lawyers representing humanitarian NGO Sea-Watch e.V, have filed a constitutional application, claiming that the decision to deny one of its rescue ships permission to set sail from Malta for 4 months violated its right to enjoyment of property and was a brazen abuse of

This emerges from an application filed today, asking the First Hall of the Civil Court in its Constitutional jurisdiction to declare the company’s right to enjoyment of property was infringed by Transport Malta’s prolonged detention of the vessel, despite it being in conformity with all applicable laws and regulations.

Sea-Watch e.V. also claimed a breach of their rights by the fact that the Authority had failed to issue a formal decision about the reasons
behind the ship’s detention, depriving them of the opportunity to respond.

It asked that the court liquidate damages in its favour. The organisation, which organises search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, operates three vessels: Sea Watch 1, 2, and 3. Sea Watch 3 would sail from Malta and head towards international waters
off Libya to monitor immigrants from Africa who find themselves in difficulty whilst making the crossing to Europe.

The court application states that when the ship sees persons in difficulty at sea it would contact, first  MRCC in Rome, then MRCC Malta and if both are unable to assist, the Netherlands Coastguard. If none are able to assist then the vessel would request permission from MRCC in Rome to carry out a rescue itself.

On 16 June 2018, the Sea-Watch 3 entered Valletta port for maintenance and 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 being ship shape, the authorities failed to give their consent to allow the ship to set sail, even in spite of a request for a formal decision on the basis of which the vessel was being prevented from leaving Valletta.

Towards the end of August, 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.

“Essentially, from the legal aspect, when it sailed from Grand Harbour, the ship was in the same position as when it entered the port,” reads the application. Two other ships, the M/V Lifeline and the M/V Seefuchs were also detained at the same time, but these had a different type of registration, said the lawyers.

Port state control checks usually take a matter of days and certainly not months, they said, alleging that the authorities were “assisting the Government in its work to stop [rescue] vessels operated by NGOs.”

The vessel had visited Malta on a number of occasions before this incident, but had only been stopped after the M/V Lifeline dispute had
arisen, it said.

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.

Lawyers Cedric Mifsud and Catherine Mifsud signed the constitutional application.