Italy’s Salvini goes on trial on charges of illegally detaining migrants at sea

Italy's Matteo Salvini at a rally in Catania, Sicily, on October 2, 2020 on the eve of his trial.
Italy's Matteo Salvini at a rally in Catania, Sicily, on October 2, 2020 on the eve of his trial. © Alberto Pizzoli

Italy’s right-wing former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, appeared Saturday before a court in Sicily for a hearing on charges that he illegally detained migrants at sea ahead of a potentially career-derailing trial.


Salvini arrived shortly before 10am local time for the hearing, but the normally pugnacious, ebullient politician made no comment to waiting press outside the court house in the Sicilian city of Catania. 

Prosecutors accuse Salvini of abusing his powers when he was interior minister to block 116 migrants from disembarking from the Italian Gregoretti coastguard boat last year, under his so-called "closed ports" policy.

If the opposition leader and head of the anti-immigrant League party is convicted for more than two years, he could also be barred from holding public office for six years, preventing him from running for prime minister in the next election in 2023.

Turning a trial into a rally

Salvini, who has largely faded from the public spotlight since being ousted as a minister, has turned the preliminary hearing into a political rally of sorts, staging days of events in a piazza in Catania to rail against the government of Premier Giuseppe Conte.

"I've picked out my best suit" for the hearing, Salvini quipped as he arrived in Catania Thursday for three days of rallies, dinners and debates on issues from immigration to security in the city's port area.

The League party has printed T-Shirts and advertised cheap flights for the "Italians choose freedom" festival, which will feature fellow far-right head Giorgia Meloni, of the Brothers of Italy party, and bigwigs from ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.

A 500-strong police force has been tasked with preventing clashes between Salvini fans and left-wing protesters. 

Salvini is due to address a rally later Saturday after the hearing.

In court will be a Nigerian family who claim they were "treated worse than animals" and are a civil party in the case.

Senate vote lifts immunity

The Senate voted in February to lift Salvini's parliamentary immunity, paving the way for a possible trial on charges of kidnapping and abuse of power. The Gregoretti was stuck at sea for days in July 2019 until a judge approved its landing in Augusta, Sicily. 

The Senate also lifted his immunity in a second case, in which he is accused of refusing to allow 164 migrants off a rescue ship in Sicily. A preliminary hearing in that case is pending. 

During his 14 months as interior minister, Salvini repeatedly denied ships carrying rescued migrants access to ports. The policy resulted in numerous standoffs, leaving migrants stuck at sea for many weeks before European countries could identify a willing port or courts intervened.

Salvini says he wants to face charges in both cases to clear his name. Yet he fought to maintain immunity in a third case that was brought while he was still minister, winning protection from prosecution for not allowing 190 migrants off another coast guard ship in August 2018. 

The controversial former Italian interior minister remains the head of the League party, which remains popular even if it has shed about 10 percentage points in opinion polls since the 2018 elections.

The slide began when Salvini lost his Cabinet post in a failed bid to topple the Italian government in August 2019. Instead, the 5-Star Movement formed a new coalition with the center-left Democratic Party, pushing Salvini’s League into opposition.

Stage set for a political showdown

In the Gregoretti case, the 116 migrants, who hailed largely from Sudan, as well as central and western Africa, were rescued in the Mediterranean in two separate operations on July 25 last year after five days at sea. There were 15 unaccompanied minors among them.

They were transferred to the Gregoretti on July 26, then held on the overcrowded patrol vessel under a fierce summer sun despite a scabies outbreak and a suspected case of tuberculosis.

The 15 minors were eventually allowed off on July 29 following pressure from Catania's juvenile court.

The remaining migrants disembarked July 31 after Salvini, 47, said a deal had been brokered with EU countries to take them.

His defence team insists the decision to hold them was not Salvini's alone, but reached collectively within the government.

Salvini, who has said Sicilian judges would be better off concentrating on jailing mafiosi than trying him, declared that it would be "the Italians, in the next elections, who will say whether I did the right thing or not".

Analysts say the legal trouble is unlikely to hurt Salvini's popularity, but could on the contrary work in his favour.

Salvini's fierce "Italians First" stance saw his popularity shoot up as interior minister, though his polling numbers slid significantly during the coronavirus lockdown, which overshadowed the migrant question.

With the centre-left government promising to water down Salvini's harsh security decree which makes it easier to expel migrants, the stage is set for a fresh political showdown.

The far-right is hoping to cash in once more on a vote-winning issue.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)



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