Six United Nations human rights experts have sharply criticised Italy over the arrest and prosecution of German NGO rescue ship Seawatch3's captain Carola Rackete and "unlawful" threats made to the judge who ruled her release, a UN statement said on Thursday.
“Rescuing migrants in distress at sea is not a crime,” the experts said.
“We urge the Italian authorities to immediately stop the criminalisation of search and rescue operations.”
Carola Rackete was arrested and placed under house arrest on 29 June after Sea-Watch3 entered the Italian port of Lampedusa with 40 migrants on board. Rackete was brought before a judge on 1 July over accusations that she had ignored police in docking at Lampedusa and that she had hit a police patrol boat. The judge dismissed the charges the next day, ruling that Rackete had been fulfilling her duty to rescue persons in distress at sea, and ordered her immediate release, the statement recalled.
Since she was freed, Rackete has since received death and rape threats and has been targeted online through sexist messages, the statement noted.
Rackete remains under investigation in separate criminal proceedings over allegations of facilitating illegal migration abd endangering the lives of police officers. If convicted, she could face up to 15 years in prison.
“Ongoing attempts to suppress NGO search and rescue operations put the lives of thousands of migrants attempting to cross the sea at risk,” said one of the six UN experts, Obiora C. Okafor, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity.
“This prosecution could have a chilling effect on migrant rights defenders and on civil society as a whole,” added another of the UN experts, Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders.
Since her decision to release Rackete, the judge, Alessandra Vella, has been attacked in Italy's media, while Italy's anti-migrant interior minister and deputy premier Matteo Salvini, has accused Vella of political bias.
Salvini said on social media that Vella's ruling was a “political judgment” that had allowed the liberation of a “criminal”, and invited the judge, whom he described as “a leftist”, to take off her robe and stand for election with the opposition centre-left Democratic Party, the UN statement noted.
“Ideological political accusations made against a judge by authorities of the executive simply for fulfilling a well-established norm of public international law establishing a duty to rescue persons in distress at sea constitute a serious breach of the principles of judicial independence and the separation of powers," said Diego Garcia-Sayan, UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers..
"The duty to respect and abide by the judgments and decisions of the judiciary constitutes a necessary corollary of the principle of separation of powers,” Garcia-Sayan underlined.
“Public statements and personal attacks by high-ranking political figures are a serious interference with the autonomy of individuals judges, and may have the effect of hampering the authority of the judiciary as an autonomous branch of the State power,” Garcia-Sayan said.
The UN experts also criticised the emergency decree passed by the populist government last month that slaps hefty fines on any boat entering Italian territory without permission, and threatens to suspend or revoke their licences.
“These rushed legislative measures have the potential to seriously undermine the human rights of migrants, including victims of arbitrary detention, torture, and other serious human rights violations,” the experts said.
“They directly contravene Italy’s human rights obligations arising in the course of search and rescue operations, including the non-derogable obligation to respect and protect the right to life.”
The experts have written twice to the Italian government to protest the criminalisation or blocking of humanitarian help for migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean, including the closure of Italy's ports to migrant rescue vessels, according to the statement.