Malta fines captain of German migrant rescue ship

VALLETTA (Reuters) - The German captain of a migrant rescue ship was fined 10,000 euros ($11,240) by a Maltese court on Tuesday, after being found guilty of entering national waters 11 months ago without proper registration.

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The MV Lifeline vessel was impounded by transport authorities on the Mediterranean island of Malta in June 2018 after disembarking 234 migrants it had rescued off Libya.

The skipper, Claus Peter Reisch, was subsequently charged with operating a ship that was not registered for rescue operations.

He told the court that his ship was logged in the Netherlands, but Magistrate Joseph Mifsud said documents supplied by the Dutch Registry made clear they did not recognize the vessel as registered under their flag.

However, Mifsud rejected a prosecution request to confiscate the boat, saying it belonged to the German charity Mission Lifeline rather than Reisch.

“The court is concerned by the level of rhetoric and racism surrounding this case and migration in Malta,” Mifsud said in his ruling.

While the charges could have carried a 12-month prison sentence, the magistrate said this was never going to be imposed because the court “immediately understood the circumstances of the case”.

In issuing the fine, the court recommended that the funds be distributed among charitable organizations that work among migrants.

The ship was removed from the custody of the court, but it was not clear whether it could leave Malta.

Malta and neighboring Italy have repeatedly closed their ports over the past year to charity ships that pick up migrants off the coast of Libya. The two countries accuse the NGOs of aiding people smugglers -- a charge the charities deny.

($1 = 0.8898 euros)

Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Crispian Balmer