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, who said that the NGO had "acted out of necessity" in bringing 200 people rescued at sea to Italy instead of returning them to Libya.
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 the northern Libyan coast.
The charges have not been dropped, according to Proactiva's founder, Oscar Camps, who said that the Italian investigation continued. He welcomed the ship's release as "only a first step".
Es sólo un primer paso y una buena noticia. El Open Arms queda liberado, pero las investigaciones de la fiscalía de Catania por organización criminal y la de Ragusa por fomentar la inmigración ilegal continúan, seguimos necesitando todo el apoyo. #FreeOpenArms pic.twitter.com/w6wnZDvyGW— Oscar Camps (@campsoscar) April 16, 2018
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 allege was 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 Malta only deals with medical emergencies and that forcibly returning migrants to Libya would have placed their lives in danger.
The group's supporters organized protests in Madrid and Barcelona and more than 300,000 people signed petitions calling for the ship's release, under the slogan: "Saving lives is not a crime."
"If saving lives is a crime, I'm a criminal": a protester in Madrid. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP
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. A new hearing is scheduled for April 23rd.
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.
Last year around a dozen NGO ships patrolled the coast off Libya. Now there are only two such ships, with others suspending their operations following the drop in departures, as well as threats from Libya and the seizure of boats.
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.