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EU court rules against Italy in dispute over seizure of migrant rescue ships

The court sided with the Berlin-based nonprofit Sea Watch, which uses four ships to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea attempting to reach Europe.

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Italian authorities can only detain migrant rescue vessels if there is a clear risk to safety, the European Union’s top court ruled Monday. 

The European Court of Justice found that two vessels detained by Italian harbor masters ostensibly over health and safety concerns should have been held "only in the event of an evident danger to safety, health or the environment."

The two German-flagged ships, Sea Watch 3 and Sea Watch 4, were detained in 2020 after they had rescued hundreds of people from the Mediterranean Sea and brought them to Italy. They belong to the German nonprofit organization Sea Watch, which uses them to rescue migrants attempting to reach European shores. 

The Berlin-based charity appealed the seizure, claiming the motivations were political. 

"For months the Sea Watch 3 and Sea Watch 4 were detained due to arbitrary port state controls,” the group said in a statement, calling the justifications “absurd.” Among the complaints by Italy was that the ship was carrying too many life vests. 

EU regulations governing port safety give the bloc’s 27-member states the authority to inspect and seize vessels in the interest of safety and to ensure compliance with international maritime law. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries have an obligation to rescue anyone in danger at sea. The Italian Ministry of Health, however, claimed the ships were unsafe and incorrectly registered.

The Luxembourg-based court agreed that Rome had the right to inspect the vessels but cautioned that such investigations cannot be spurious. The decision to do so must “be based on serious indications capable of establishing that there is a danger to health, safety, on-board working conditions or the environment,” the court's Grand Chamber wrote. 

In particular, the 17-judge panel noted that port authorities cannot require ships to hold certificates beyond what their national authorities require.

“The port State does not have the power to demand proof that those ships hold certificates other than those issued by the flag State or or that they comply with all the requirements applicable to another classification,” the ruling states.

According to Sea Watch, the Italian authorities demanded Sea Watch 4 carry a certification that Germany, where the ship is flagged, doesn’t offer.

“For this reason, we fear that legitimate procedures and maritime law are being weaponized by the Italian authorities to stop search and rescue activities,” said Barbara Deck, a Doctors Without Borders volunteer who works onboard Sea Watch 4. in a statement while the ship was still being held in Italy. 

Authorities ultimately granted permission for Sea Watch 3 to depart seven months later, in February 2021, and an Italian court ordered Sea Watch 4 released a month later. Both ships returned to rescue operations.

Italy has detained multiple migrant rescue vessels in the last few years, even going so far as to arrest the captain of Sea Watch 3, Carola Rackete, in 2019. An Italian judge ordered her release a few days later and the country’s Supreme Court ultimately ruled her arrest was unlawful. 

Sea Watch applauded Monday's decision.

“The ruling provides clear legal security for NGOs and is a victory for sea rescue,” the group said in a statement.

Amnesty International calls the trip across the Mediterranean Sea “the world’s deadliest sea crossing” and the United Nations estimates that more than 3,000 people die or go missing during the voyage every year. 

On Sunday, a Sea Watch vessel docked in the southern Italian port city of Taranto carrying 444 migrants, who had been rescued in four separate operations over the last week. They remained offshore in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees while waiting for Italian authorities to give them permission to come ashore. More than 30,000 people have arrived in Italy by sea so far this year.

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