July 18, 2019 / 2:42 PM / a month ago

Sea-Watch captain says hopes for change in EU migrant rules

AGRIGENTO, Italy (Reuters) - The German captain of a charity rescue ship, under investigation for aiding illegal immigration, said on Thursday she hoped the new EU Commission would work to let boat migrants enter Europe unhindered.

German captain Carola Rackete talks to Sea-Watch Spokesperson Giorgia Linardi after a hearing over accusations she aided illegal immigration in Agrigento, Sicily, Italy July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Carola Rackete, who piloted the Sea-Watch 3 into port on the Italian island of Lampedusa last month with 41 migrants aboard, has denied any wrongdoing.

Speaking to reporters after being questioned by magistrates on the incident, Rackete said she was glad to have the chance to explain her decision to enter port after spending two weeks in international waters waiting in vain for permission to dock.

“I sincerely hope that the European Commission now, after the new election of the parliament, will do its very best to prevent situations like that happening (again) and that all European countries will work together ... to accept any people which the civilian fleet has rescued,” she said, speaking in English.

A new EU parliament was elected in May and earlier this week it approved the appointment of a new Commission president, former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who has herself called for a revamped EU pact on migration and asylum.

Italy welcomed in almost all of the migrants rescued by humanitarian groups at sea until a populist coalition government took office in 2018 and immediately sought to close the nation’s ports to the charity ships.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has accused the groups of acting as a de-facto taxi service for the people-smugglers and has looked to beef up the coastguard in violence-riddled Libya to make sure migrants stay in Africa.

Rackete was arrested when she reached Lampedusa on June 29 and was accused of endangering lives by barging into port.

A judge subsequently threw out those accusations and freed her from house arrest, but she still faces possible charges of aiding illegal immigration and defying official orders.

Her lawyer, Alessandro Gamberini, said Salvini had generated “a climate of hatred” through “irresponsible comments”. Rackete last week issued a defamation case against the minister and asked magistrates to block his social media accounts.

Salvini has denied any wrongdoing and the magistrates have not yet reviewed the case.

The investigators who met Rackete on Thursday said she was free to go and did not set any date for any further questioning.

Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by John Chalmers

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