The German captain of the charity-run ship Lifeline, that rescued more than 200 migrants in the Mediterranean in late June, stressed in court that it was a duty to rescue people at sea and no permission was needed.
He was testifying in proceedings against him before the Maltese courts.
Claus-Peter Reisch, the 57-year old Munich-born Captain, is facing charges of steering the ship within Maltese territorial waters without the necessary registration and licence.
He gave an animated deposition before Magistrate Joseph Mifsud, tracing his career path which eventually led to when the vessel commanded by him saved 235 migrants in the waters near the Libyan coast.
The ship was then impounded by Malta on June 29. Five days later, Captain Reisch was arraigned under summons.
Captain Reisch told the Court on Tuesday he was inspired to venture into this field of rescue operations at sea while on a private sailing trip to Greece in 2015, where the sight of migrant boats, children’s toys and shoes on the open seas, set him thinking as to how he could help.
“Should we let them drown?” he had asked himself, fully aware that with six life jackets and few life boats on board his private vessel there was little he could do. That was when he decided to put his navigation experience at the service of the NGO Lifeline, embarking upon some six rescue missions.
Asked whether he received any payment for his services, Captain Reisch laughed and replied “No, I’m a volunteer. I pay my own expenses,” going on to exhibit the original certification proving that he held all necessary licences to master sailing and motor-driven craft even on the open seas.
He had first started sailing on the Bavarian lakes at the age of 14 and ventured out to the open seas four years later, clocking up some 45,000 miles of sailing experience.
Focusing upon the Lifeline’s last mission in June, the Captain explained how the vessel had first sailed to Malta on June 10, returning from repair works at the dry docks at Licata.
Three days later, equipped with an experienced medical team, comprising a retired doctor, a nurse and five paramedics, the Lifeline set sail out of Maltese harbours to a search and rescue area off Libya.
Lifeline’s last mission: threats at sea
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 Misurata in Libya.
“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,” Captain Reisch stressed, before moving on to the events of June 21 when, at around 4am, the Lifeline crew spotted three targets on their radar.
The first turned out to be a rubber boat, inflated with exhaust fumes, making it more uncomfortable for the occupants packed on board.
“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 purposely 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 explained.
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, five babies - three of them under four months old - and 15 women.
Weapons on board
With all 235 migrants on board, the Lifeline were soon approached by a Libyan coastguard vessel.
A full two-minute recording of a radio call with the Libyan crew was played out in open court, reliving the drama of those tense moments when Captain Reisch had been told repeatedly “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 have the 235 migrants but Captain Reisch had stood firm, insisting that this went against the Geneva Convention and urging the other Captain to “better search for the third rubber boat in distress that was some six miles ahead.”
By the time the meeting ended and the Lifeline proceeded on its rescue mission, the third boat was lost. “We couldn’t find it unfortunately,” the Captain concluded.
A seven-day saga on the open seas followed, until on June 27, the Maltese authorities finally conceded to offer the ship a port of safety.
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 after a gruelling experience at sea, made worse by strong westerly winds.
During that seven-day saga, some 150 seasick migrants had to be constantly tended to so as to prevent them from succumbing to a coma “from which they might never wake up.”
Moreover, the Lifeline crew provided 500 warm meals, 150 litres of tea and breakfast daily, besides offering medical treatment to those in need.
“We were very happy to bring everyone alive and in much better condition than we had picked them up,” the Captain said.
An email from the Maltese authorities had first directed them to Marsaxlokk harbour. However, hours later, the Lifeline was instructed to enter the Valletta port, docking at Boiler Wharf.
“This was really perfect,” Captain Reisch recalled. “No one asked for documents.”
It was only the day after 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.
“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”… to amend the contents of the ICP issued by them.”
Asked whether he had checked the ship’s documents before setting sail, Captain 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 effected 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 TM 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 prosecuted. Lawyers Cedric Mifsud and Neil Falzon were defence counsel.
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