The German captain of a humanitarian rescue ship who was fined €10,000 in Malta last May over registration irregularities has had his conviction quashed on appeal.

Claus Peter Reisch was vindicated on Tuesday after a judge ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove that he had a criminal intent when he had sailed into Maltese waters in 2018. 

Mr Reisch was arrested that year and the ship he was sailing, the MV Lifeline, impounded after it brought 234 migrants it had rescued in the central Mediterranean to Malta.

Authorities had said that the ship was incorrectly registered and the captain charged with entering Maltese territorial waters without the necessary registration or licence.

The Lifeline was registered as a pleasure craft in the Netherlands, but Dutch authorities said this constituted only a certificate of ownership and did not grant the right to fly the Dutch flag. 

A magistrates' court had concluded that the registration "was not to the satisfaction of the Dutch authorities" when the vessel entered Maltese waters.

It had found Mr Reisch guilty last year and fined him €10,000, with the magistrate ordering that the fine be paid to charities working in the migration sector.

The initial court decision had however turned down a request by the authorities for the MV Lifeline to be confiscated, on the basis that the vessel was not the property of the accused.

A second charge, of using the vessel for commercial purposes without a licence, was also rejected. 

Appeals court's reasoning

When delivering judgment on appeal, Madam Justice Consuelo Scerri Herrera observed that the first court had not taken note of submissions made by the defence regarding the Captain’s lack of criminal intent.

“This Court would have expected the first court to take note of such submissions.”

The Court observed further that the prosecution had failed to prove that the Captain “knew that the vessel was not registered” under the Dutch shipping register or any other State, noting further that the ICP (International Certificate for Pleasure Craft) could have given rise to a “misunderstanding.” 

That certificate had originally read “Dutch” next to “flag,” the Court observed, concluding that the prosecution had failed to prove that the Lifeline Captain “knew that he was traveling without a valid registration.”

In comments after the judgment, Mr Reisch's lawyers Cedric Mifsud and Neil Falzon said that the Captain’s sole intention had always been to save lives.