Italy committee gives go-ahead for Salvini migrant trial


Rome (AFP)

An Italian senate committee voted Monday to strip former interior minister Matteo Salvini of his parliamentary immunity, opening the way for him to stand trial for allegedly illegally detaining migrants at sea last year.

"They'll have to find a very large courtroom, for it will be a trial against the Italian people," Salvini, head of the far-right League party, said on Facebook ahead of the vote.

The ruling followed the recommendation by a court in Sicily that Salvini stand trial for blocking migrants on a coastguard boat last July.

Under Italian law ministers cannot be tried for actions taken in office unless a parliamentary committee gives the go-ahead.

The final decision rests with the Senate, which will be called to give its opinion in a vote likely to be held in February, Italian media said.

Should Salvini go to trial, he faces up to 15 years in jail if found guilty.

Salvini had refused to allow 131 rescued migrants off the Gregoretti coastguard boat until a deal was reached with other European states to host them.

A Catania court accused him of "abuse of power" in blocking those saved on board from July 27 to July 31.

Salvini insists that was not an individual decision, but one backed by the government and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Prosecutors in Sicily opened a probe into conditions on board the boat, where migrants shared one toilet between them.

- 'Head held high' -

This is the second time the League leader has risked trial over detaining migrants.

Last year a court ruled that he should be tried for preventing 177 migrants from disembarking the Diciotti coastguard ship, but the senate voted to defend his parliamentary immunity.

Salvini called on League senators Sunday to vote in favour of the trial, "so we can clear this up once and for all".

His opponents have accused him of using the incident to win support ahead of a key regional election by portraying himself as a man hounded by the government and law courts merely for doing his job.

The then-interior minister's "closed ports" policy, aimed at stopping migrant arrivals from war-torn Libya, saw his popularity numbers shoot up.

Italy has long complained it has been abandoned by Europe to deal with migrant arrivals alone.

"If I have to go to jail for defending an idea, I'll go with my head held high," Salvini told a rally in the region of Emilia Romagna.

The region, a traditional stronghold of the left, goes to the polls on Sunday, pitting the ruling coalition parties -- the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and anti-establishment Five Star movement (M5S) -- against the League.

Salvini's anti-immigrant party has a strong lead in national polls and is betting on a victory in Emilia Romagna being damaging enough to bring down the government and spark elections.

The League senators on the committee voted in favour of stripping Salvini's immunity, while those from the other right and centre-right opposition parties voted against. Those belonging to PD and M5S boycotted the sitting.