These days, the front pages of European newspapers are telling the story of the Sea-Watch 3 and its captain, a 31-year-old German woman, Carola Rackete. After two weeks off the island of Lampedusa, the non-governmental organization (NGO) rescue ship, flying the Dutch flag, forced through the blockade imposed by Italian authorities, causing an accident – fortunately without injuries – with an Italian Customs patrol boat.

The Sea-Watch 3 was carrying more than 40 people from Libya who, after more than two weeks abandoned in the middle of the sea with high temperatures, were exhausted and in very poor health. On several occasions, Captain Rackete tried to convince Italian authorities of the critical condition of the passengers. However, the interior minister firmly denied the ship’s landing at Lampedusa’s seaport.

Op-Ed: The Sea Watch 3 affair and her lady captain, hero or criminal?
Sea-Watch 3 Captain Carola Rackete

After lengthy and inconclusive negotiations, Captain Rackete made the ultimate and desperate decision: force their way into Lampedusa, running the risk of having the ship seized and going to jail. The maneuver to avoid the patrol boat was quite dangerous, so much so that the Italian Customs officers risked being crushed against the dock. Once landed, the Sea-Watch 3 captain was arrested, while the 40 Libyan castaways were rapidly rescued and secured.

At that point, the awful curtain opened on the “theatre of hate” that in recent months evolved in Italian public opinion. Before Rackete got in a Customs officers’ car, a group of Italians (almost all Leaguist supporters) insulted her with sexual and racist taunts. It was an overreaction that, in other times, would never have happened, particularly from Lampedusa’s inhabitants. It’s a suffering city, but it’s far from a racists’ isle. After the shaming, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini described Rackete in the media as a dangerous felon who deserved immediate imprisonment and expulsion. Of the same opinion, the leader of the far right party Fratelli d’Italia, Giorgia Meloni, applauded the woman’s arrest and called for the ship’s sinking.

Italian public opinion is divided on the story. On one hand, there are the government supporters and exponents of racist provocations. On the other hand, the left parties who defined Rackete’s behavior as “heroic.” The only thing absent from the chronicle is common sense. Once again, Italy missed an opportunity to show the world it knows how to handle the issue of immigration, defending its borders with the use of force, if necessary, but above all, with intellect.

The Sea-Watch 3 captain made a mistake because forcing the stop imposed by sovereign state authorities is undoubtedly a severe crime. Nevertheless, we cannot forget that on board the ship, there were people in dire health. The real reason the Dutch ship was kept off shore was political: a personal challenge between Minister Salvini and the NGO organization that has lasted for months. In this occasion, however, the minister lost the battle miserably because Italian Judge Alessandra Vella ordered Rackete’s release, stating that: “Security decree does not apply to those who save lives.”

Who is right and who is wrong?

According to the Italian maritime law, the Sea-Watch 3 captain could be arrested for having resisted the warning from warships to stop. But can we define a Customs patrol boat as a “warship”? Following the same law, the judge determined that a Guardia di Finanza police boat is not considered a battleship unless it is outside territorial waters.