The Malta Independent 22 July 2019, Monday

Lifeline captain back in court - 'This was a stateless vessel', ship registrar says

Thursday, 5 July 2018, 11:54 Last update: about 2 years ago

The captain of a ship that has been impounded after bringing 233 rescued migrants to shore in Malta last week is back in court as the case against him continues.

Claus-Peter Reisch, 57, born in Munich Germany, was charged with, as captain of the vessel Lifeline, entering Maltese territorial waters illegally and without proper registration and a licence. The prosecuting officers are also requesting the court to order the confiscation of the ship.

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Today’s sitting came as the first group of African migrants who arrived in Malta on the MV Lifeline have left the island for France. Outside the courts building, protesters turned up with body bags to protest at the government's decision to close the ports to NGO ships pending the investigation into the Lifeline.

The Lifeline was at the centre of an international controversy in the last few weeks after both Malta and Italy refused to allow it to dock and take responsibility for the migrants.

The stalemate was eventually broken after eight EU countries and Malta entered into an ad hoc agreement, promising to take a share of the migrants on board. The ship then docked in Malta on Wednesday last week.

1.21pm The sitting is over. The next hearing will take place on 10 July at 11am.

1:11pm Sammut ends his testimony and the parties are now discussing possible dates for forthcoming sittings.

1pm: The ship registrar Ivan Sammut explains that the call sign and MMSI are regulated by international standards and give the relevant authority the right set its own criteria for issuing the licence. Malta’s criteria are slightly stricter. Sammut says the MMSI number is just the registration of the radio with which the authorities make contact with.

12:52pm: Defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud says the fact that the vessel has this number means it did have a flag state. Ship registrar Sammut: “I have never seen this type of registration before.” Asked why the Dutch authorities had issued an MMS number but then denied knowledge of the vessel, the Maltese ship registrar says that he does not speak for them. Sammut: “We asked the Dutch authorities about this certification and they explained the basis for the licence and that this gave no registration or flag state rights to the vessel.”

12:46pm Cross-examined by degfence lawyer Cedric Mifsud, the registrar is asked whether he had any indication that the ship certificate is invalid. “I have no such indication,” he answers. Lawyer Mifsud asks about the vessel’s MMSI number: "It is registered in the Netherlands," the lawyer says. “Doesn’t this mean that the Dutch authorities were aware of the vessel?” Sammut: “Thank you for the question. It was this doubt that we wanted to clarify with the Dutch and they replied unequivocally as to what the document states and what rights it gives to the vessel.” The ship registrar says that the MMSI number is tied to the equipment on board and not the vessel or its flag state.

12:41pm The magistrate orders the defence lawyer to sit down or he will suspend the sitting. “Are we to believe that we cannot trust our officials to know about things just because they are not about Malta?"

12:34pm Defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud adamantly protests that the witness is not qualified to say what the foreign certificate is valid for. The lawyer is nearly thrown out of the sitting after repeatedly ignoring the court’s order to sit down and let the witness testify. “Stop playing to the gallery,” Magistrate Joe Mifsud admonishes the lawyer. The witness replies that the [yacht club] certificate states that it grants no nationality.

12:27pm High ranking Dutch officials gave written confirmation that the vessel was not registered under the flag for the purpose of international law conventions. It was only registered as a pleasure yacht with a Dutch yacht club and gave it no right of nationality to the vessel.  “A vessel without a nationality cannot sail in international waters. Therefore… it is clear that this was a stateless vessel,” the Maltese ship registrar says. Sammut insists the Dutch registration was only an unofficial proof of ownership. It gave no right of nationality to the vessel.

12:24pm The next witness is Ivan Sammut, the registrar of vessels for Transport Malta. Inspector Haber asks whether the Lifeline is registered under the Maltese flag. It isn’t. Sammut says that when the Lifeline case started to develop, the transport regulator communicated with their counterparts in the Netherlands to confirm whether the vessel was registered under the Dutch flag.

12:22pm AFM Colonel O'Neil says that the ship captain had hung up on them when the army tried calling him to stop heading towards harbour because of a medical evacuation. “The captain said something on the likes of ‘the patient is his concern’. The captain had a casualty and wanted to take him ashore. When we told him that he couldn’t enter within 24 nautical miles, he stubbornly refused to take heed.” The defence lawyer presses the witness on why the decision to allow the vessel to dock was taken. AFM officer: “The basis on which the humanitarian nature was cited was taken by my superiors.”

12:16pm Asked what was the order the captain disobeyed, Colonel O'Neil  says that the Libyan authorities had taken over the case and there was a process to be followed. Therefore, there was an obligation to take instruction from the Libyans. “The information we have is that he didn’t comply with the instructions he received from Libya.” The witness cannot confirm whether the Libyans had said that the Lifeline was to ‘head north’.

12:14pm Asked whether the AFM had taken the vessel to be a pirate ship at the time, O’Neil says that the vessel’s registration was still being certified. The captain could not say whether he had taken the immigrants aboard before, or after, talking to Rome.

12:13pm In his cross-examination, lawyer Cedric Mifsud tells the colonel that if he had confirmation that the ship was stateless, the AFM would have been able to board the vessel. The army officer confirms this is the case but it was not done. “We only dealt with the vessel to give it supplies.”

12:09pm The captain also needed to evacuate a person suffering from a hernia. O’Neil says the sea was rough and it took some time to coordinate the rescue. The AFM officer says the captain was ordered to maintain his position but he tried to sail closer before being blocked. The medical evacuation was carried out by the AFM vessel Melita.

12:08pm O’Neil says that apart from the time when the captain asked for food and medical supplies, which were granted immediately, he was also asking that his passengers be given a place of safety. “The request was made to us and Italy.”

12:05pm Eventually, on 27 June the Maltese government gave the vessel permission to berth and it was instructed to go to Boiler Wharf in Senglea. The AFM officer says the decision to allow the ship to berth in Malta was taken on a humanitarian basis and not because the country wanted to provide it with a place of safety.

12:03pm The AFM officer says the Lifeline captain requested permission to dock in Malta but was refused. “We said we cannot provide you with a place of safety.”

12:01pm The AFM officer says the ship was still sailing north and entered the Maltese SAR area at which point the Italians asked Malta to take over. Malta refused since it was not the coordinating authority and not the first Rescue Coordination Centre. “We were not the place of safety for this vessel,” O’Neil tells the court, adding that Malta agreed with the suggestion that the ship should contact the flag state. He says the vessel continued sailing north, closer to Lampedusa.

11:57am Col. Clinton O’ Neil, head of operations at AFM and rescue coordinator takes the stand. He says the Armed Forces of Malta had been informed that there was communication between the lifeline and the Italian authorities. O’Neil tells the court that the Lifeline captain was not in communication with the Libyan authorities. “Rome immediately said that they would not be allowed in. Since the boat did not want to take instructions from Libya, the Italian authorities told the captain to contact the flag state – the Netherlands.”

11.53am Micallef says it is not within his remit to check for irregularities on the vessel when asked by defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud whether he found any irregularities on the ship.

11:53am Police officer Karl Micallef presents the court with photos of the vessel he had been commissioned to take.

11:50am Felice says there were no irregularities linked to the passengers and the crew. The vessel itself was not his concern. 

11:50am He says it arrived on 10 June at 1pm. Last port of call was Licata in Italy. 

11:50am Police sergeant Daniel Felice from the immigration section of seaport testifies to give details of the Lifeline’s call at Malta. 

11:49am The court has acceded to a request for the ship to be provided with provisions, fuel, laundry services and safety equipment. 

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