Italy's Salvini considers legal case against migrant rescue ship

Rome (AFP) –


Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini said Sunday he was considering legal action against the crew of a Dutch-flagged rescue ship as calls grew for 47 migrants to be allowed to land.

"We have concrete elements to declare that the captain and crew of the Sea Watch 3 have put the lives of those on board at risk by disobeying precise directions days ago to disembark them in the nearest port, not Italy!" he said.

"The evidence will be handed to the judicial authorities," he added, accusing captain and crew of "a crime and a clear desire to use these immigrants in a political battle".

Salvini has refused to open the ports to the mainly sub-Saharan African migrants rescued in the Mediterranean over a week ago. He has argued the ship had a chance to make port as it sailed through Libyan, Tunisian and Maltese waters.

"The interior minister is gathering elements to evaluate whether to press charges against the entire Sea Watch crew for favouring illegal immigration," the ministry said.

Three members of parliament sympathetic to the migrants' plight were refused permission by the ministry to board the Sea Watch 3.

The delegation managed to get on board by hiring a boat privately and getting past the coast guard.

The MPs, one from the centre-right Forza Italia party and two from left-wing parties, boarded the boat off the coast of Sicily, where it has taken shelter from bad weather.

"The migrants are exhausted," said MP Riccardo Magi, of the centrist More Europe party.

"There are 50 people in a small room with just one bathroom. They are hostage to a pointless display of strength by the Italian government."

- Torture scars -

Fellow MP Nicola Fratoianni, of the left-wing Sinistra Italiana, asked "that those shipwrecked and the crew be allowed to disembark in line with international law".

"They have shown us their scars, the torture they have suffered. Their eyes say it all," Fratoianni said.

Rights group Mediterranea said the members of parliament were "checking the psychological and physical state" of the rescued migrants, as well as gathering testimony of the violence they suffered in Libya.

While Salvini denounced them for disobeying the order not to board the Sea Watch 3, former prime minister Paolo Gentiloni thanked the MPs on Twitter for "simply doing their job".

UNICEF, the UN children's agency, Save the Children and other aid agencies have appealed to Italy to allow at least the 13 minors on board to land.

"Imagine being in the freezing cold on the bridge of a ship. After being beaten, threatened, tortured," UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said on Twitter.

"Imagine seeing the land of freedom in front of you. Being all alone in the world. And asking yourself 'Why? Why does nobody want me?'" she said.

Salvini has insisted the Netherlands or Germany take responsibility for the vessel, which is run by the German NGO Sea Watch.

Dutch Migration Minister Mark Harbers said Saturday his country "was not obligated" to find a solution, because the Sea Watch 3 had acted "of its own initiative".

Migrants rescued by ships have frequently been left in limbo since Italy's anti-immigration government began turning them away last summer.