AGRIGENTO, ITALY - An Italian judge ruled on Tuesday that the captain of a charity ship had not broken the law by crashing through a naval blockade, saying that by bringing rescued migrants to port she was carrying out her duty to protect life.
Judge Alessandra Vella ordered the 31-year-old German captain, Carola Rackete, released from house arrest where she had been held since Saturday when she disobeyed Italian military orders and entered the port of Lampedusa.
Rackete had faced up to 10 years in prison on possible charges of endangering the lives of four policemen for hitting a patrol boat at the quay as she brought some 41 African migrants to land in the Sea-Watch rescue vessel.
She still could face separate charges of aiding illegal immigration, but the judge said she had no charges to face over the crash itself.
The ruling was swiftly denounced by Italy's hardline interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who has campaigned to bar charities from bringing refugees to Italian ports.
"I am indignant, I am disgusted, but I will not give up," Salvini said in a statement saying he had expected much more robust action by the Italian justice system and promising to expel Rackete from the country as soon as possible.
"We will restore honor, pride, well-being, hope and dignity to Italy, whatever it costs," he said.
The controversy over Rackete's actions has dented relations between Italy on the one side and Germany and France on the other, and highlighted Europe's continued failure to adopt coherent immigration norms.
She appeared before the Agrigento court on Monday and apologized for hitting the patrol boat, saying it had been an accident and explaining that her sole concern was the well-being of the migrants who had been at sea for more than two weeks.
A top Italian prosecutor had dismissed her defense, saying her boat had been safely moored off shore as Italy awaited a decision on where the migrants should go.
An Italian government source said on Tuesday that Germany had agreed to take in about a dozen of them, with France, Portugal, Finland, and Luxemburg also pledging help.
Germany has asked Rome to release Rackete, while France, which has fraught relations with Italy's populist leaders, accused its neighbor of acting "hysterically" over immigration.
"Mr. Matteo Salvini's behavior has not been acceptable as far as I am concerned," French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye told France's BFM-TV on Tuesday.
Salvini heads the far-right League party and last month introduced new rules effectively closing the nation's ports to rescue ships, threatening transgressors with fines of up to 50,000 euros ($56,500) and the impounding of their vessels.
It was the latest in a line of tough measures imposed by Salvini since he took office a year ago, which have led to a decline in new arrivals. Just 2,784 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, according to official data, down 83% on the same period in 2018 and down 97% on 2017 levels.
"The French government should stop these insults and open its own ports (to migrants)," he said in a statement on Tuesday.
Rackete, who sports long, distinctive dreadlocks, has become a heroine in the eyes of human rights campaigners.
An online campaign to help her launched by two German TV stars has so far raised almost 1 million euros, while a separate fundraiser launched on Facebook by an Italian group has raised 435,000 euros in seven days.
Sea-Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer told a news conference in Berlin that the money would be used to fund future rescue missions.
"This solidarity shows two things: that civil society is behind us and wants to defend us against the politics of letting people drown," he said.
($1 = 0.8853 euros)