Young German captain takes on Italy’s hard-line minister

Carola Rackete

Sea-Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete answers reporters’ question during a videoconference from her vessel at sea in the Mediterranean, just off the coasts of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, Friday, June 28, 2019. The German captain of the Sea-Watch 3 ship that is blocked off Lampedusa with 42 rescued migrants aboard said, in a videoconference with the Foreign Press in Italy Association Friday, the migrants are exhausted and not letting them land is like keeping them in prison. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

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MILAN (AP) — The 31-year-old German captain with tied-back dreadlocks and a steady voice as she defies Sicily port authorities in defense of dozens of migrants rescued at sea has enraged Italy’s interior minister. Matteo Salvini has derided her both as “that uppity captain” and “a heroine from the left, born white, rich and German.”

An experienced sailor, Carola Rackete has commanded a handful of rescue missions for the German humanitarian group Sea-Watch since joining in 2016. During one of her first at command, her ship picked up 45 dead bodies floating in the sea from a major shipwreck in May 2016, which colleagues described as “a really tough mission, where she was standing her ground really well.”

Her current mission, culminating in a 16-day stand-off with Italian authorities after rescuing 53 migrants off Libya on June 12, has put her on the international stage in a very personal way.She has publicly and openly defied port authority orders on two successive days as she pressed to deliver the migrants to a safe port, citing “a state of necessity” on board.

As a result, Rackete was placed under investigation by Sicilian prosecutors on Friday for allegedly aiding illegal immigration and entering Italian waters against the orders of the Italian authorities, news agency ANSA reported.

Speaking to foreign reporters via video call from aboard the Sea-Watch 3, Rackete expressed more concern for the 40 remaining migrants on board and the 21 members of her crew than for her possible legal woes, noting that she had yet to be notified of the investigation. In Twitter posts after entering Italian waters, she said she knew the risks.

“The need which we have on board is psychological and that the reason why I declared the state of necessity,” Rackete told reporters. “Keeping the people here in a type of prison, even if it’s very nice, keeping theme here on board and not giving them access to a place of safety is a very, very grave thing.”

Sea-watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer described Rackete as one of the organization’s most experienced captains. He recalled the early 2016 mission where they responded to the deadly shipwreck.

“She was standing her ground really well, even if it was terrifying,” he said. “She is a really impressive person, always clear in her decisions.”

Rackete spent part of her childhood abroad, before returning to Germany where she graduated high school. She told Italy’s La Repubblica daily that her first experiences abroad in South America made her realize how privileged she was, and motivated her to give something back.

She has an undergraduate degree in nautical science from a German university and a Master’s degree in environmental conservation from a British university. She has previous nautical experience with a cruise company, on polar expeditions and for Greenpeace.

She told La Repubblica that she has never faced such a difficult situation as the current standoff “not even when I was on an ice-breaker in the Arctic Sea.”

Leaked tapes of her radio calls pointedly disregarding orders from Italian port officials have presumably been intended to shore up Italy’s case against her for not only disobeying authorities but also for flouting a government decree passed this month denying entry to Italian territorial waters on public order grounds that could see Sea-Watch slapped with a fine of up to 50,000 euros ($56,400).

The decree, which also includes seizing ships for repeated offenses, has been criticized by human rights organizations, with Human Rights Watch saying it puts Italy in violation of EU law, including asylum procedures, and the charter of fundamental rights.

Her actions have gained her a following on social media, with memes of the Walt Whitman poem: ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ An anti-fascist group has raised more than 220,000 euros for any legal defense while demonstrations to support the migrants have taken place in Rome, Milan and Palermo. The mayor of the German city of Rottenburg has offered to send a bus to Italy to pick up the migrants, and the Palermo mayor made her and the crew honorary citizens.

Rackete said Thursday that her duty to save people at sea and bring them to safety on land according to maritime law was in direct conflict with Italian arguments that the migrant arrivals are a threat to the national security.

“I’m fairly sure that the Italian courts will recognize that the law of the sea is much more important, and the right of people to the safety and their lives indisputably more important than the right of Italy to their territorial waters,” she said.

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