We had a fabulous morning in Court today! After 18 months in criminal proceedings, NGO rescue Captain Claus-Peter Reisch was finally cleared of all charges brought against him. In its much-awaited judgement, the Court of Criminal Appeal closed Police vs Claus-Peter Reisch (Appeal No. 150/2019) with a 62-page judgement finding Claus-Peter not guilty of sailing into Maltese waters without the appropriate ship registration. Thanks to this judgement, Claus-Peter is now a free man!
Claus-Peter was charged following the rescue at sea of over 200 migrants. In the political impasse that followed the rescue, the Netherlands claimed the MV Lifeline was not flying the Dutch flag, prompting Malta to allow the ship to enter its port and disembark the migrants and to subsequently slapped Claus-Peter with two criminal charges relating to the ship’s registration. In the first judgement, delivered on 14 May 2019, Claus-Peter was cleared of one charge but found guilty of the other. He was fined €10,000. On our advice, he decided to appeal this conviction. A full account of the facts and judicial process may be found here.
What does it mean for us?
Today’s victory is extremely significant for us. It confirmed what we have been saying since the very beginning of this saga: Captain Claus-Peter Reisch had only been interested in saving lives at sea and his actions had been all performed in good faith. The judgement highlights short-comings in the manner the prosecuting officers handled the case. For us, yet without attributing such opinions to the Court, these statements confirm our suspicions that this case was never really ever about the ship’s registration but more about EU Member States’ attempts to frustrate NGOs rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.
Denied entry to port safety, stranded out at sea for days, the MV Lifeline was only allowed to enter Malta once Malta was convinced other EU Member States would relieve it of the disembarked migrants. Not satisfied with this, Malta relied on its criminal law machinery to chase Claus-Peter and, throughout the process, ensure the arrest of the vessel thereby preventing it from further rescue at sea operations.
With this judgement we are further convinced of the need for us to be directly involved in such crucial cases. Such litigation work is extremely time- and energy-consuming. It takes us to areas of law that are not necessarily our strengths, yet allows us to bring our experience with human rights issues to situations that might otherwise not benefit for such insights. This case was not simply about the registration of a ship. It was not merely a matter of criminal law.
Importantly, it was about the context. It spoke about the duty of all ship masters to rescue all persons in distress at sea…without distinction.
It reminded us all of the duty of States to promptly ensure a safe port of disembarkation.
It revealed the great lengths States are willing to go to in order to politicise human life when the life is deemed inferior, unworthy, a burden, a political inconvenience.
We would like to express our immense thanks to our legal partners Mifsud and Mifsud Advocates for their commitment, energy and expertise. Without them it would be simply impossible for us to even dream of engaging with such issues in court. A big thanks to everyone who supported our work in this case, through funds, moral support and encouragement.
Finally, a big well done to Claus-Peter Reisch for his courage and inspiration.