On Tuesday, Sea-Watch announced its preparedness to begin urgent legal proceedings against the blockade of its rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 in Italy by the government of the Netherlands. Two minutes before the given deadline on Wednesday, the Dutch authorities permitted the ship to sail to its planned shipyard for maintenance. This demonstrates the indefensibility of the blockade.
“For 21 days, the Italian and Dutch authorities have stretched their power to find any possible grounds to block the ship in port”, says Johannes Bayer, chairman of Sea-Watch. “They once again prevented the ship from a potentially life-saving mission and shifted the focus on superficial technical details to hide the brutal state of exception unfolding in the Central Mediterranean Sea and in Libya.”
The Sea-Watch 3 had been stuck in the port of Catania, Sicily, since 31 January, after having disembarked 47 people rescued on the Central Mediterranean Sea. The rescue took place on 19 January, with neither coordination nor a mandatory port of safety provided by search and rescue authorities, for 10 days. After the disembarkation in Catania, a statement was published by the Office of the Public Prosecutor of Catania, clarifying that the crew and ship, in conducting the rescue, acted in full accordance with the law. Subsequently, a ludicrous barrage of controls and inspections ensued to block the ship from sailing.
“Five different inspections by Italian and Dutch authorities put the ship through its paces for about 80 hours and listed every supposed technical irregularity they could possibly find. And this, two weeks before the scheduled maintenance time“, says Friedhold Ulonska, First Officer on the Sea-Watch 3. “However, the crew was able to swiftly and adequately address all points, leaving the authorities with no valid reason to keep us in port. This actually speaks to the great shape of our 43-year-old ship, that they cannot find any irregularities even when trying so hard.“
The extensive and uncustomary inspections by the Dutch authorities, who had already cleared Sea-Watch 3 in a five-yearly flag state inspection in July last year, included an additional highly unusual medical inspection to assess the ability of the ship to accommodate rescued people for a long period of time; something Sea-Watch cannot be held accountable for as a rescue vessel.* Even before the reports of these peculiar inspections were presented to the Dutch authorities, they once again denied Sea-Watch 3 permission to leave for search and rescue operations. In addition, the Dutch authorities limited the freedom of ship and crew to sail to a shipyard of their choice. Sea-Watch firmly challenged this arbitrary measure to obstruct sea rescue in the Central Mediterranean in any way possible, including ways that have absolutely no legal basis.
This missing legal basis was unintentionally admitted when the Dutch authorities changed their heart right within minutes of the deadline to prevent an urgent legal procedure, which Sea-Watch had set on Tuesday. Despite the clearance from the flag state, given on Wednesday, bureaucratic dodging from both the Netherlands and Italy dragged on, holding Sea-Watch 3 in port entirely arbitrarily. Only today around 13:00 CET the final clearance by the harbour master was provided.
Thankful for the immense support and solidarity shown by the citizens and civil society of Catania – and all over Italy – in the past three weeks, the crew of the Sea-Watch 3 now sails to a shipyard in Marseille, France, for its annual maintenance period, with an eye to commence operations again mid-March.