Spanish NGO's Proactiva Open Arms vessel as seen at harbor at the port of Pozzallo. ANSA/AP Photo/Alessio Tricani
Spanish NGO's Proactiva Open Arms vessel as seen at harbor at the port of Pozzallo. ANSA/AP Photo/Alessio Tricani

An Italian judge on Monday ordered the release of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms' ship that was impounded for taking 218 migrants to Italy. Three members of the organization had been under investigation for human trafficking and criminal association.

The preliminary investigative judge of the Sicilian city Ragusa, Giovanni Giampiccolo, rejected a request from the local prosecutor's office and ordered the release of the Proactiva Open Arms's ship on Monday. He said that the ship of the Spanish NGO was acting under "a state of necessity" when it rescued the migrants off the coast of Libya and refused Libyan coast guards commands to turn them over. 

The ship had been seized on the orders of the Catania district prosecutor's office on March 18. The prosecutor's office also put Proactiva Commander Marc Reig Creus, head of mission Ana Isabel Montes Mier and the general coordinator of the NGO, Gerad Canals, under investigation for trafficking in illegal immigration and criminal association. 

Case opened a month ago 

According to the Catania district prosecutor's office, those under investigation had aimed to rescue migrants and bring them to Italy while knowingly breaking the law. The investigation was opened after the ship docked in Pozzallo, where it arrived on March 18 with 218 migrants. The landing came after the ship refused to hand over the refugees to a Libyan motorboat and two days of diplomatic talks. 

The prosecutor's office claimed that the ship refused to land on Malta despite handing an infant in urgent need of medical care and its mother over to the island. This version of the event has been denied by the NGO's lawyers, who deposited several memory sticks in their defense and decided not to bring their clients to an interrogation set by the Catania prosecutor's office because it did not ''have official jurisdiction over the investigation'' and due to the feeling that it wanted to ''monopolize the investigation in this case at any cost''. 

'Justification due to a state of need' 

The Ragusa judge underscored that the NGO's conduct had shown ''the possible cause of justification due to a state of need''. The judge went on to say that search and rescue operations ended only when those rescued were brought to a safe place, as called for by the SAR Convention signed in Hamburg in 1979. The preliminary investigation judge noted that a safe place is ''where the lives of those rescued is no longer under threat and where it is possible to meet their basic needs, such as food, shelter and healthcare''. 

The decree issued went on to say that serious human rights violations were occurring in Libya, according to the information currently available. ''I am happy. We were finally found to be right,'' Rosa Emanuela Lo Faro said, the lawyer helping Commander Creus. ''All's well that ends well. But the legal war doesn't end here, but will continue for quite some time", lawyer Alessandro Gamberini said. Gamberini's client is head of mission Ana Isabel Montes Mier.

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