Judge orders release of Spanish NGO boat seized in Italy

A judge ordered Italian authorities on Monday to release a migrant rescue ship belonging to the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, which was seized in Sicily last month.
Prosecutors sought to extend a confiscation order on the Open Arms ship for a second time, but were denied by an investigating judge in Ragusa.
The vessel had been confined to dock since March 18th, after prosecutors accused the charity of aiding illegal immigration in connection with a rescue operation that it carried out in international waters off Libya.
Having gone to the aid of two vessels in difficulty and taken 218 people on board the Open Arms, Proactiva refused the Libyan coast guard's orders to hand over the migrants. According to the aid group, Libyan guards threatened to kill their crew if they did not surrender those rescued, who included women and children.
Instead the Spanish ship sailed for Sicily, in what Italian prosecutors say was part of a deliberate plan to bring the migrants to Italy.
According to the Italian coast guard, international norms usually require ships to wait for their country of origin to arrange where migrants rescued at sea should be taken. The Open Arms sailed for Italy while still awaiting directions from the Spanish government and despite the fact that it was closer to Malta at the time, the coast guard said.
The group defended itself by saying that forcibly returning migrants to Libya would have placed their lives in danger and violated the international refugee convention.
The group organized a protest in Barcelona and more than 300,000 people signed petitionscalling for the ship's release, under the slogan: "Saving lives is not a crime."
Italy seized another rescue ship, the Iuventa, in August on similar allegations that the German NGO that operates it had facilitated illegal immigration. The ship remains impounded in Lampedusa, despite the group's efforts to get it back.
More than 600,000 migrants are believed to have reached Italy by boat in the past four years, though arrivals fell by 34 percent in 2017, according to the EU border agency. The drop is largely attributed to an accord between Italy and Libya, which has seen the Libyan coast guard assume responsibility for a large part of rescue operations.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, migrants face appalling conditions in Libya. A 22-year-old Eritrean, rescued at sea by the Open Arms ship last month after spending 18 months in detention in Libya, died from severe malnutrition just hours after landing in Sicily.