The Case of Mission-Lifeline in Malta: Captain Reisch’s Authentically European Lesson

Mission Lifeline and Sea Watch volunteers demonstrating against the Maltese government decision to sequester their rescue ships. La Valletta, Malta, July 2nd, 2018.

A crucifix is hanging on the courtroom’s wall in La Valletta, Malta, where Claus-Peter Reisch’s hearing has taken place on Monday morning, July 2nd, 2018. Another crucifix is placed on judge Mifsud’s desk, looking directly over at the defendant and the rest of the jury.

Claus-Peter Reisch is being detained, together with other German and Dutch volunteers, in La Valletta by the Maltese government because of unclear accusations. He is the captain of Mission Lifeline, a German NGO whose purpose is saving lives at sea and rescuing migrants from smugglers off the Libyan coasts. Something that, lately, populist anti-migration western public opinion seems to condemn as some type of unjustified criminal act.

The Maltese authorities have accused captain Reisch of sailing on the Mission Lifeline without proper documentation that proves the ship (which has been purchased by the NGO in the Netherlands and is, therefore, a Dutch vessel) is officially registered and has a license released by Dutch authorities.

On a mere ontological level, the case should not even be discussed: captain Reisch has all the documentation to prove accusations against him false, yet judge Mifsud has postponed the hearing to July 5th as he is waiting on getting proof the documents provided by Reisch and his team are official (which they are, the only issue turns out to be that the ship is registered as a tourist ship instead of a rescue ship).

As judge Mifsud is listening to Reisch’s lawyers and the discussion becomes heated, Mission Lifeline volunteers are waiting outside, wearing t-shirts with huge “SAVE LIVES” stamps on them. They trust their heroic captain will be released immediately, and that this horrific moment will fade away like a nightmare on an early Monday morning. They look tired, slightly distressed, but their eyes are full of genuine pride — they’re standing united against a common enemy: European governments’ hostility against humanity. Whatever judge Mifsud decides, they won’t give up fighting for their cause.

Still, by the end of the hearing in the courtroom, it looks like nobody among the Maltese authorities is going to apologize to captain Reisch, not even as the judge rules he will have to pay a ten thousands euros bail for unclear reasons vaguely related to the violation of international waters rules. Judge Mifsud wears a spooky smile as he is looking beyond the crucifix and telling captain Reisch his ship is going to be sequestered from the Mission Lifeline team of volunteers. He is implying that they will not be allowed anymore to use the ship on any of their lives-saving missions.

And so it is: in the face of Jesus Christ and of an anxious international arena, an European judge has ruled, through indirect legal means, that European volunteers who risk their lives to save migrants from dying out in the sea or going back to torture, rape, and exploitment is a deplorable act to be condemned. Seemingly, the crucifix resting on that desk, hanging on that wall, looking down on the defendant, the judge and the jury, has been abruptly deprived of one among its most important, ancient, mediterranean messages: treat your neighbor like you would want to be treated. But it’s not only the crucifix’ word the Maltese authorities have robbed: it seems that the voice of maritime European traditions altogether has fallen asleep. A deep, tragic sleep.

By the time we are out of the courtroom, outside Malta’s tribunal captain Reisch is welcomed by a heartwarming crowd of young men and women: Sea Watch volunteers have joined the Mission Lifeline team in protesting against the Maltese government and showing their gratitude and support. “SEA RESCUE IS NOT A CRIME” says one of the big posters they’re holding all together, bright orange life jackets scattered on the ground in front of them. Captain Reisch has a serene expression and answers a few questions. A journalist asks him about the conditions on the ship. “We were out of food and water during the last hours. Everyone was scared and didn’t know what was going to happen,” says the captain. “Do you regret what you’ve done?” asks the journalist. “I don’t regret it, no. We did the right thing.” Captain Reisch smiles and thanks everyone, shakes hands with his lawyers and supporters. His humbleness and peacefulness are reassuring. Maybe, because they remind us of what Europe still can look like, the values it embodies beyond judge Mifsud’s hostility, Macron’s hypocrisy, Salvini’s openly fascist and racist propaganda.

I choose to view European spirit through captain Reisch’ and Mission Lifeline’s eyes. I choose humanity as the only meaningful political agenda for European leaders. In captain Reisch’s resiliency I know, the future belongs to us, and to all those who’re being detained and mistreated, laughed at, and dehumanized by a few powerful white men whose conscience is buried down underneath layers of underserved privilege and infinite ignorance.