An Italian judge ruled on Tuesday that the captain of a charity ship had not broken the law by crashing through a naval blockade, saying that by bringing rescued migrants to port she was carrying out her duty to protect life.

Judge Alessandra Vella ordered the 31-year-old German captain, Carola Rackete, to be released from house arrest, where she had been held since Saturday when she disobeyed Italian military orders and entered the port of Lampedusa, an island off Italy’s southern coast.

Rackete had faced up to 10 years in prison on possible charges of endangering the lives of four police officers for hitting a patrol boat at the quay as she brought some 41 African migrants to land in the Sea-Watch rescue vessel.

She still could face separate charges of aiding illegal immigration, but the judge said she had no charges to face over the crash itself.

The ruling was swiftly denounced by Italy’s hardline interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who has campaigned to bar charities from bringing refugees to Italian ports.

“I am indignant, I am disgusted, but I will not give up,” Salvini said in a statement, saying he had expected much more robust action by the Italian justice system and promising to expel Rackete from the country as soon as possible.

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said he was ‘disgusted’ by the judge’s ruling that freed Rackete from house arrest. (Riccardo Antimiani/EPA-EFE)

“We will restore honour, pride, well-being, hope and dignity to Italy, whatever it costs.”

The controversy over Rackete’s actions has dented relations between Italy on the one side and Germany and France on the other, and highlighted Europe’s continued failure to adopt coherent immigration norms.

Rackete appeared before the court in Agrigento, Italy, on Monday and apologized for hitting the patrol boat, saying it had been an accident and explaining that her sole concern was the well-being of the migrants who had been at sea for more than two weeks.

A top Italian prosecutor had dismissed her defence, saying her boat had been safely moored offshore as Italy awaited a decision on where the migrants should go.

An Italian government source said Germany had agreed to take in about a dozen of them, with France, Portugal, Finland, and Luxembourg also pledging help.

France, Germany lash back

Germany has asked Rome to release Rackete, while France, which has fraught relations with Italy’s populist leaders, accused its neighbour of acting “hysterically” over immigration.

“Mr. Matteo Salvini’s behaviour has not been acceptable as far as I am concerned,” French government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye told France’s BFMTV.

Salvini heads the far-right League party and last month introduced new rules effectively closing the nation’s ports to rescue ships, threatening transgressors with fines of up to 50,000 euros ($73,980 Cdn) and the impounding of their vessels.

It was the latest in a line of tough measures Salvini has imposed since he took office a year ago, which have led to a decline in new arrivals. Just 2,784 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, according to official data, down 83 per cent from the same period in 2018 and down 97 per cent from 2017 levels.

“The French government should stop these insults and open its own ports [to migrants],” Salvini said in a statement. 

Rackete has become a heroine in the eyes of human rights campaigners.

Two German television stars started an online campaign to help her, and it has so far raised almost one million euros ($1.48 million), while a separate fundraiser launched on Facebook by an Italian group has raised 435,000 euros ($643,630 Cdn) in seven days.

Sea-Watch spokesperson Ruben Neugebauer told a news conference in Berlin that the money would be used to fund future rescue missions.

“This solidarity shows two things: that civil society is behind us and wants to defend us against the politics of letting people drown,” he said.