Watch: ‘It’s a legal obligation to save those at sea’ – Lifeline Captain

The court heard how the vessel MV Lifeline would enter and leave the Maltese ports without trouble prior to 27 June when MV Lifeline was allowed to dock in Malta following a standoff with the Italian authorities. On that day, Lifeline brought to safety some 234 people who were saved from drowning. Lifeline Captain Claus-Peter Reisch was subsequently questioned by the Police and charged with entering Maltese territorial waters illegally and without proper registration and a license. Reisch told the court that it was a legal obligation for those who are at sea to save someone in distress, emphasising that one has no choice. Reisch was replying to why he decided to save the distressed migrants in June. During his cross-examination, Reisch stressed that you do not need permission or registration of some kind of allowance to rescue people. He explained that MV Lifeline had the necessary documents to sail in international waters. He then explained that it was correctly registered as a pleasurecraft. Reisch further stated that he was ordered by the Maltese authorities to enter port, saying the authorities had organised and prepared a berth. He told the court that his only intention was to find a port of safety, saying it was not up to him to choose.

Reisch took the witness stand on Tuesday morning. In a court presided over by Magistrate Joe Mifsud, Reisch explained how he joined up the civil search and rescue NGO as a captain. He recalled when he felt the need to the something was when he was on holiday in Greece and had seen migrants’ possessions floating in the water.

He explained that the vessel always had experienced people on board, including a qualified doctor, nurse and five paramedics. Reisch told the court that when you have 50 people in the water it becomes incredibly dangerous. Reisch explained that the boats on which the people travelled would be in distress as soon as you have waves that are one meter in height. The court heard the radio recording in which Libyan authorities could be heard threatening Lifeline, “Libyan Coast Guard, Libyan Coast Guard for Lifeline. Over.” “Lifeline, go away or I kill you”.

The Captain was asked whether he contacted the Maltese or Italian authorities, replying in the affirmative, Reisch told the court that they would always inform the MRCC in Rome whenever a boat is encountered. They would inform the authorities of the number of people on board and what they were doing. He explained that they would request a port of safety, emphasising that Libyan was not such a port, and would enquire whether the rescue mission was coordinated with another vessel. On the day, Lifeline was told that the Libyan authorities were responsible for the boats they encountered in distress. However the Libyan authorities failed to reply to requests sent in by Lifeline.

When asked if he checked the vessel’s registration and certificates before setting off on the mission, Reisch remarked that he did this as it was completely normal, saying that he even did this for his car. He then confirmed that the document shown was a copy of the document he checked explaining that it was the ship’s certificate. He explained that Lifeline owns the vessel and it was registered in the Netherlands with Amsterdam as its home port. Reisch told the court that he carried out all the necessary verifications, like checking that the certificate matched the ship, and that the markings of the home port were marked on the ship. He also explained that MV Lifeline has a radio license and a Dutch MMSI number which shows that it was registered in the Netherlands.

‘The situation got worse after days at sea’

Describing the situation on board MV Lifeline after the rescue mission took place, Reisch said that the migrants were very happy that they survived the ordeal. The Captain explained that the crew made sure that fresh water was available however the situation deteriorated after days of sea sickness. Reisch explained that 500 warm meals were served every day. The vessel is also equipped with a clinic where they treated people with oxygen masks and ultrasound. He then explained that a person was evacuated because he was very weak explaining that the doctor had warned if he was not evacuated, the person would have died. Reisch explained that they woke up the guests every two hours making sure no one fell into a comatose state.

The papers…

Reisch told the court that the Italian, Maltese and Dutch authorities never contacted him to question about the vessel’s registration. He then told the court that when the Armed Forces of Malta approached the vessel with supplies, they did not ask them for the papers, saying that the AFM wanted them to go to Italy. He explained that when they were given permission to enter Malta, they were given a berth and the Maltese doctors came on board. The captain explained that they had an ordinary check-in procedure and no one came to check their documents. During the cross-examination, Reisch replied that if the Maltese authorities did not check the appropriate documents on the vessel twice, it was not his fault, he then invited them to check and control at any time. He reiterated that they always brought the documents to Transport Malta and their job was not to make them control MV Lifeline.

It was only the day after that Lifeline got to know that their papers were being questioned. He told the court, that he told the authorities that some 25,000 boats were registered in Holland with the same certificate and would check into Malta hundreds of times without check-ups.

Reisch stressed that up to this day they have not received a letter or notice that indicated that their certificate might not be valid.

Reisch told the court that as of 11 December, the certificate the company issued for the vessel is no longer recognised for European registration. He explained that until that date, the documents were valid, and that he had the original documents in hand. He emphasised that no one ever questioned the documents.

Lawyers Gianluca Cappitta, Cedric Mifsud, and Neil Falzon are appearing for Claus Peter Reisch.

The case continues on 11 January at 11am.