ROME – The public prosecutor’s office in Catania, on the Italian island of Sicily, launched on Tuesday an investigation into 24 people, most of which work for the non-profit Doctors without Borders (MSF), and has requested the seizure of the NGO migrant rescue ship Aquarius, due to an alleged mismanagement of waste onboard.
Of the 24 detainees, 22 are MSF workers and the remaining two are members of the European Maritime Safety Agency.
According to a joint statement from the Italian Financial Guard, a law enforcement agency, and police, the 24 individuals are accused of disposing of waste considered dangerous in an illegal way on 44 occasions.
The French charity allegedly failed to properly dispose of around 24 tons of waste and therefore polluted various Sicilian ports.
The prosecutor has also frozen 460,000 euros ($525,831) worth of MSF assets, which reflects the sum of money MSF allegedly saved by circumnavigating waste disposal norms. .
Upon hearing the news, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini confirmed he was pleased he had blocked the NGO from accessing Italian ports.
But the charity was less pleased.
“This latest attempt by the Italian authorities to stop humanitarian lifesaving search and rescue at any cost is sinister,” Karline Kleijer MSF Emergency Manager said in a statement.
“We are more than ready to clarify the facts and stand accountable for the operational procedures we followed, but we strongly reaffirm the legitimacy and legality of our humanitarian work,” said Gabriele Eminente, general director of MSF in Italy.
Over the course of three years, MSF working with maritime authorities has rescued and assisted over 80,000 people.
The Aquarius now sits paralyzed in Marseille, southern France, after political pressure has frozen its activities twice in two months.
The boat works alongside national coastguards saving stranded migrants in the Mediterranean and has been involved in several controversies with Italy’s anti-immigration government.