Migrant rescue volunteers from the MV Lifeline and other vessels dressed as dogs in a Valletta protest on Tuesday during which they accused Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of showing more compassion for a dog than for the thousands they say are dying while three rescue ships remain impounded in Malta.

The protest followed the rescue of 58 people, including 18 minors, on board the Aquarius rescue ship last week. The migrants disembarked in Malta together with a white Maltese terrier, Bella, that was also on board. The Prime Minister has faced criticism for tweeting repeatedly about the dog to the exclusion of the migrants on board. 

"For the past 100 days, Malta has continued to hold three rescue ships hostage, without legal basis, expressly condemned by MEPs as 'unlawful' and 'a criminal attack on humanitarian assistance'," the Lifeline crew members said. "As long as the government celebrates the life of a dog, while actively being complicit in the prevention of mass rescue, we can only mourn the death of humane and socially responsible values spreading across the European community," the activists said.

Claims of unjust delays rejected

Lifeline's captain Claus-Peter Reisch is seen with crew members of the charity rescue ships Lifeline and Sea-Watch 3, dressed up as dogs, during a protest outside the Courts of Justice in Valletta, Malta October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit LupiLifeline's captain Claus-Peter Reisch is seen with crew members of the charity rescue ships Lifeline and Sea-Watch 3, dressed up as dogs, during a protest outside the Courts of Justice in Valletta, Malta October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

The protest came ahead of the latest hearing in the case against Lifeline captain Claus-Peter Reisch, who is charged with ship registration irregularities. Capt Reisch has complained of unjust delays in the case, which has been ongoing since July.

Speaking to the Times of Malta ahead of the hearing, Capt Reisch said the magistrate himself had said the case could have been wrapped up in two weeks with cooperation from the Attorney General and authorities in the Netherlands, where the ship was registered.

“How many times are we going to come here to be told there has been no progress in the case? These are simply delaying tactics,” he said.

But Magistrate Joe Mifsud during the court sitting denied that anyone in Malta was responsible for the delays. 

He said that staff from the Attorney General's office were doing everything possible to obtain information sought from the Dutch ship registration authorities as soon as possible. But so far the requested data had not been supplied.

“This is not a Maltese problem,” Magistrate Mifsud said, adding that the court was not prepared to wait indefinitely and intended to deliver judgment by December.

During Tuesday’s sitting, the court made reference to an application filed by the defence, merely an hour before the start of the hearing, requesting the court to terminate the evidence stage of the prosecution.

“Once the evidence stage is concluded and final submissions have been made, I intend to deliver judgment within 15 days,” Magistrate Mifsud declared, prompting defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud to point out that the only witnesses for the defence were to be the Captain himself and the owners of the vessel.

Sale of vessel

Reference was also made to a request by the Director of the Law Courts for the sale of the vessel.

“I won’t go into that,” Magistrate Mifsud said.

Lawyer Cedric Mifsud explained that under maritime law, the vessel’s certificate was part of the vessel. In this case the certificate had been deposited in court and therefore the vessel could not be sold. 

Lawyers from the AG’s Office, also explained that orders for the shifting of the Lifeline to a new berth were not “capricious.” They explained that the vessel had been allowed to berth at tanker sites when these were available. The only other option would be to seek a berth at private-owned sites, with obvious additional expenses piling up for the ship’s owners.

READ: Protests over costs as impounded NGO ship is ordered to move to private berth

A request by the defence for the Lifeline to be allowed to anchor within 12 nautical miles from Maltese shores was rejected by the court which insisted that the vessel was to remain “parked in our harbours.”

“Should there be a space problem, do not charge this gentleman,” the magistrate urged, turning towards the prosecution. 

The case was adjourned to November 19.

Dead migrants remembered

Photo: Reuters, Darrin Zammit LupiPhoto: Reuters, Darrin Zammit Lupi

Meanwhile, posters to remember migrants who lost their lives during their dangerous sea crossings have been put up by unknown activists all around Valletta.

One remembers a 45-year-old father of three, another a 16-year-old mother and her unborn child.

Photo: Reuters, Darrin Zammit LupiPhoto: Reuters, Darrin Zammit Lupi

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