[WATCH] Lifeline's registration with a Dutch yacht club did not give it flag status, court hears

The captain of the Lifeline, a ship that has been impounded after bringing 233 rescued migrants to shore in Malta last week, was back in court as the case against him continues • Activists protest outside the court

Lifeline captain Claus-Peter Reisch (left) (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Lifeline captain Claus-Peter Reisch (left) (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Lifeline's registration with a Dutch yacht club did not give it flag status

A certificate from a Dutch yacht club did not give the Lifeline Dutch flag status, the Maltese ship registrar told a court in Malta as the case against the migrant rescue vessel captain continued.

Lifeline captain Claus-Peter Reisch is facing charges in a Maltese court over what the police claim is the ship's irregular registration.

Taking the witness stand on Thursday, Transport Malta's ship registrar Ivan Sammut said Dutch counterparts had confirmed that Lifeline's registration certificate with a yacht club did not give it flag status.

Sammut said high ranking Dutch officials gave written confirmation that the vessel was not registered under the flag for the purpose of international law conventions. It was only registered as a pleasure yacht with a Dutch yacht club and gave it no right of nationality to the vessel.

"A vessel without a nationality cannot sail in international waters. Therefore… it is clear that this was a stateless vessel," the Maltese ship registrar told the court.

Lifeline activists were outside the law courts with body bags to protest the restrictions on NGO rescue vessels
Lifeline activists were outside the law courts with body bags to protest the restrictions on NGO rescue vessels

The court also heard Col Clinton O’ Neil, head of operations at AFM and rescue coordinator, say that at one point during the saga, the captain tried to head towards a Maltese port and had to be stopped.

The captain wanted to evacuate one of the passengers but the process took some time because of rough seas.

When asked by the defence lawyer to explain what orders the Lifeline captain had disobeyed on the high seas, O'Neil said the Libyan authorities had taken over the rescue case and the captain had an obligation to take instructions from the Libyans.

"The information we have is that he didn’t comply with the instructions he received from Libya," O'Neil said.

However, when asked by the defence lawyer, the army officer could not confirm claims that the International Maritime Organisation said Libya was not responsive to its calls.

O'Neil said the army had been informed that there was communication between the Lifeline and the Italian authorities.

Today’s sitting, came as the first group of African migrants who arrived in Malta on the MV Lifeline left the island for France.

The Lifeline was at the centre of an international controversy in the last few weeks after both Malta and Italy refused to allow it to dock and take responsibility for the migrants.

The stalemate was eventually broken after eight EU countries and Malta entered into an ad hoc agreement, promising to take a share of the migrants on board. The ship then docked in Malta on Wednesday last week.

Lawyers Gianluca Cappitta, Cedric Mifsud and Neil Falzon are defence for Reisch.

Assistant Commissioner Stephen Mallia, inspectors Darryl Borg and Mario Haber are prosecuting.

13:21 The sitting is over. That’s it for today. The next hearing will take place on 10 July at 11am. Kurt Sansone
13:12 Just before proceedings started this morning, the police removed a heckler who was taking it out on activists from the Lifeline, who gathered outside the law courts with body bags. Kurt Sansone
13:11 Sammut ends his testimony and the parties are now discussing possible dates for forthcoming sittings. Kurt Sansone
13:01 Sammut says the MMSI number is just the registration of the radio with which the authorities make contact with. Kurt Sansone
13:00 The registrar explains that the call sign and MMSI are regulated by international standards and give the relevant authority the right set its own criteria for issuing the licence. Malta’s criteria are slightly stricter. Kurt Sansone
12:57 Sammut: “We asked the Dutch authorities about this certification and they explained the basis for the licence and that this gave no registration or flag state rights to the vessel.” Kurt Sansone
12:56 Asked why the Dutch authorities had issued an MMS number but then denied knowledge of the vessel, the Maltese ship registrar says that he does not speak for them. Kurt Sansone
12:56 Lawyer: “So you can’t say whether there are 10,000 other vessels registered in this way?” Kurt Sansone
12:55 Sammut: “I have never seen this type of registration before.” Kurt Sansone
12:52 The lawyer says the fact that the vessel has this number means it did have a flag state. Kurt Sansone
12:51 The ship registrar says that the MMSI number is tied to the equipment on board and not the vessel or its flag state. Kurt Sansone
12:50 Sammut: “Thank you for the question. It was this doubt that we wanted to clarify with the Dutch and they replied unequivocally as to what the document states and what rights it gives to the vessel.” Kurt Sansone
12:50 Mifsud asks about the vessel’s MMSI number. It is registered in the Netherlands, the lawyer says. “Doesn’t this mean that the Dutch authorities were aware of the vessel?” Kurt Sansone
12:46 Cross-examined by Cedric Mifsud, the registrar is asked whether he had any indication that the ship certificate is invalid. “I have no such indication,” he answers. Kurt Sansone
12:41 The magistrate orders the defence lawyer to sit down or he will suspend the sitting. “Are we to believe that we cannot trust our officials to know about things just because they are not about Malta?" Kurt Sansone
12:37 The witness replies that the [yacht club] certificate states in and of itself that it grants no nationality. Kurt Sansone
12:36 “Stop playing to the gallery,” Magistrate Joe Mifsud admonishes the lawyer. Kurt Sansone
12:35 The lawyer is nearly thrown out of the sitting after repeatedly ignoring the court’s order to sit down and let the witness testify. Kurt Sansone
12:34 Defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud adamantly protests that the witness is not qualified to say what the foreign certificate is valid for. Kurt Sansone
12:29 Sammut insists the Dutch registration was only an unofficial proof of ownership. It gave no right of nationality to the vessel. Kurt Sansone
12:28 “A vessel without a nationality cannot sail in international waters. Therefore… it is clear that this was a stateless vessel,” the Maltese ship registrar says. Kurt Sansone
12:27 High ranking Dutch officials gave written confirmation that the vessel was not registered under the flag for the purpose of international law conventions. It was only registered as a pleasure yacht with a Dutch yacht club and gave it no right of nationality to the vessel. Kurt Sansone
12:26 Sammut says that when the Lifeline case started to develop, the transport regulator communicated with their counterparts in the Netherlands to confirm whether the vessel was registered under the Dutch flag. Kurt Sansone
12:25 Inspector Haber asks whether the Lifeline is registered under the Maltese flag. It isn’t. Kurt Sansone
12:24 The next witness is Ivan Sammut, the registrar of vessels for Transport Malta. Kurt Sansone
12:23 The defence lawyer presses the witness on why the decision to allow the vessel to dock was taken. AFM officer: “The basis on which the humanitarian nature was cited was taken by my superiors.” Kurt Sansone
12:22 “The captain said something on the likes of ‘the patient is his concern’. The captain had a casualty and wanted to take him ashore. When we told him that he couldn’t enter within 24 nautical miles, he stubbornly refused to take heed.” Kurt Sansone
12:22 The AFM officer says that the ship captain had hung up on them when the army tried calling him to stop heading towards harbour because of a medical evacuation. Kurt Sansone
12:20 The International Maritime Organisation says Libya was not responsive to its calls, the lawyer suggests. The witness cannot confirm this. Kurt Sansone
12:20 But the witness cannot confirm whether the Libyans had said that the Lifeline was to ‘head north’ Kurt Sansone
12:16 Asked what was the order the captain disobeyed, the colonel says that the Libyan authorities had taken over the case and there was a process to be followed. Therefore, there was an obligation to take instruction from the Libyans. “The information we have is that he didn’t comply with the instructions he received from Libya.” Kurt Sansone
12:14 The captain could not say whether he had taken the immigrants aboard before, or after, talking to Rome. Kurt Sansone
12:14 Asked whether the AFM had taken the vessel to be a pirate ship at the time, O’Neil says that the vessel’s registration was still being certified. Kurt Sansone
12:13 The army officer confirms this is the case but it was not done. “We only dealt with the vessel to give it supplies.” Kurt Sansone
12:13 In his cross-examination, lawyer Cedric Mifsud tells the colonel that if he had confirmation that the ship was stateless, the AFM would have been able to board the vessel. Kurt Sansone
12:10 The AFM officer says the captain was ordered to maintain his position but he tried to sail closer before being blocked. The medical evacuation was carried out by the AFM vessel Melita. Kurt Sansone
12:09 The captain also needed to evacuate a person suffering from a hernia. O’Neil says the sea was rough and it took some time to coordinate the rescue. Kurt Sansone
12:08 O’Neil says that apart from the time when the captain asked for food and medical supplies, which were granted immediately, he was also asking that his passengers be given a place of safety. “The request was made to us and Italy.” Kurt Sansone
12:06 The AFM officer says the decision to allow the ship to berth in Malta was taken on a humanitarian basis and not because the country wanted to provide him with a place of safety. Kurt Sansone
12:05 Eventually, on 27 June the Maltese government gave the vessel permission to berth and it was instructed to go to Boiler Wharf in Senglea. Kurt Sansone
12:05 The court hears how the vessel continued into the contiguous zone, coming as close as 24 nautical miles from Malta. Kurt Sansone
12:03 The AFM officer says the Lifeline captain requested permission to dock in Malta but was refused. “We said we cannot provide you with a place of safety.” Kurt Sansone
12:02 He says the vessel continued sailing north, closer to Lampedusa. Kurt Sansone
12:01 Malta refused since it was not the coordinating authority and not the first Rescue Coordination Centre. “We were not the place of safety for this vessel,” O’Neil tells the court, adding that Malta agreed with the suggestion that the ship should contact the flag state. Kurt Sansone
12:01 The AFM officer says the ship was still sailing north and entered the Maltese SAR area at which point the Italians asked Malta to take over. Kurt Sansone
11:57 O’Neil tells the court that the Lifeline captain was not in communication with the Libyan authorities. “Rome immediately said that they would not be allowed in. Since the boat did not want to take instructions from Libya, the Italian authorities told the captain to contact the flag state – the Netherlands.” Kurt Sansone
11:57 He says the Armed Forces of Malta had been informed that there was communication between the lifeline and the Italian authorities. Kurt Sansone
11:57 Col. Clinton O’ Neil, head of operations at AFM and rescue coordinator takes the stand. Kurt Sansone
11:54 Meanwhile, Lifeline activists are outside the courthouse in Valletta to protest the action against rescue efforts by NGOs. Kurt Sansone
11:53 Micallef says it is not within his remit to check for irregularities on the vessel when asked by defence lawyer Cedric Mifsud whether he found any irregularities on the ship. Kurt Sansone
11:53 Police officer Karl Micallef presents the court with photos of the vessel he had been commissioned to take. Kurt Sansone
11:50 Felice says there were no irregularities linked to the passengers and the crew. The vessel itself was not his concern. Kurt Sansone
11:50 He says it arrived on 10 June at 1pm. Last port of call was Licata in Italy. Kurt Sansone
11:50 Police sergeant Daniel Felice from the immigration section of seaport testifies to give details of the Lifeline’s call at Malta. Kurt Sansone
11:49 The court has acceded to a request for the ship to be provided with provisions, fuel, laundry services and safety equipment. Kurt Sansone

 

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