ROME (Reuters) - The German captain of a private rescue ship who defied an Italian naval blockade to bring African migrants to port in June 2019 should not stand trial, a judge in the Sicilian city of Agrigento ruled on Wednesday.
Carola Rackete, 33, was arrested at the time after she disobeyed Italian orders and entered the port of the small island of Lampedusa to let some 41 migrants disembark, hitting a patrol boat in the process.
Rackete was swiftly released but the investigation into her actions continued, culminating in Friday's ruling, which backed an assessment by the state prosecutor that her decision to defy the orders was aimed at saving the lives of the migrants who had been stranded at sea for more than two weeks.
"Saving human lives in danger is the overriding duty," Rackete's lawyer, Salvatore Tesoriero, told Reuters.
Rackete's ship, run by German charity Sea-Watch, challenged the tough measures introduced by then Interior Minister Matteo Salvini - the leader of the anti-immigrant League party - to curb illegal arrivals by closing Italy's ports to private rescue boats.
Salvini and Rackete repeatedly clashed after her ship, Sea-Watch 3, violated the naval blockade. The captain launched a defamation case against the League leader after he called her a "pirate" and "outlaw" on his social media accounts.
The suit is still ongoing.
During his 14-month stint as interior minister, Salvini stopped several boats from docking in Italy and accused the charities that operated them of encouraging people smuggling.
Next September he will stand trial on charges of kidnapping over his decision to block more than 100 migrants from disembarking in Italy. He could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.
Salvini declined to comment on Wednesday's decision, but his political ally Giorgia Meloni, who heads the far-right Brothers of Italy party, denounced the ruling.
"What respect can Italy have in the world if the state is allowed to be humiliated in this way," she wrote on Twitter.
(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alex Richardson)