‘Salvini’s moment has passed’: Fading right-wing champion on trial for blocking migrants at sea

Italy’s former hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini went on trial Saturday over his refusal to let a migrant rescue ship dock in August 2019, leaving some 147 people stranded at sea for days. The trial comes at a critical time for the far-right leader, whose fortunes have declined sharply since the dramatic stand-off.

Matteo Salvini pictured outside the court in Palermo, Sicily on October 23, 2021.
Matteo Salvini pictured outside the court in Palermo, Sicily on October 23, 2021. © Gregorio Borgia, AP

The firebrand former minister appeared in a court in Palermo, accused of kidnapping 147 migrants on board the Open Arms rescue ship, most of whom were left at sea for 18 gruelling days in sweltering heat. Salvini, whose far-right League party takes a hard line on immigration, has said he was only doing his job to protect Italy’s borders by refusing entry to the Spanish NGO ship.

Saturday's hearing was largely procedural and lasted less than three hours, before the presiding judge set the next session for December 17. Salvini tweeted a photo of himself inside the courtroom, mocking a “trial wanted by the left and by the fans of illegal immigration”.

Activists are hoping the court case will set a legal precedent, sending a warning to governments that hinder search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean. The trial could also have major implications for Italian politics, potentially dealing a fatal blow to Salvini’s political career – or offering a platform for him to reverse a slump in the polls and fend off challengers on the far right.  

  • The case against Salvini

Palermo prosecutors have accused Salvini of kidnapping, abuse of power and dereliction of duty for keeping the migrants at sea off the Italian island of Lampedusa for almost three weeks even as conditions on board sharply deteriorated. Some people threw themselves overboard in desperation as the captain repeatedly pleaded for a safe port. Eventually, after an 18-day ordeal, an Italian judge overruled the interior minister and the remaining migrants still aboard the ship were allowed to disembark.

Prosecutors say Salvini’s actions violated “international conventions governing maritime rescue and, more generally, the protection of human life”. They say the interior minister ignored instructions from the prime minister’s office urging him to at least allow the minors on board the ship to disembark.   

Salvini’s prosecution was made possible by a Senate vote that stripped the former minister of his parliamentary immunity, paving the way for a trial. He faces up to 15 years in prison if he is found guilty.

  • The defence: A ‘sacred duty’

Salvini claims he was protecting the country as part of his "closed ports" policy, which aimed to stop people from attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Italy. When the trial was announced earlier this year, he tweeted that defending the country was the “sacred duty” of every Italian. “I’m going on trial for this, for having defended my country?” he asked. “I’ll go with my head held high.”

At the time of the Open Arms incident, Salvini was part of a coalition government in which he simultaneously held the positions of interior minister and deputy prime minister. He has argued that his migrant policy was not his alone but was approved by the government, including by former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, whom he has called as a witness in the trial.

In a boost for the defence, a court in Catania earlier this year dismissed a related case in which Salvini was accused of blocking other migrants on board the Italian coastguard boat Gregoretti. The prosecutor in that case argued that Salvini was carrying out government policy agreed by other cabinet members when he kept the 116 migrants at sea for five days.

  • The witnesses: Top officials and a Hollywood star

Twenty-three civil parties, including the Spanish-based NGO Open Arms and nine migrants who were on board the ship, are represented in the trial. In addition to Conte, high-profile witnesses summoned to testify include Salvini’s successor at the interior ministry, Luciana Lamorgese, and the current foreign minister, Luigi di Maio, who also served as deputy PM at the time.

Plans for actor Richard Gere to give testimony have attracted greater attention, with Salvini deriding a “show trial”. The Hollywood star, known as a campaigner for Tibet and other human rights issues, boarded the Open Arms ship in August 2019 to support the migrants – a visit mocked by Salvini at the time. 

Hollywood icon Richard Gere helps to serve meals to migrants aboard the Open Arms ship on August 9, 2019.
Hollywood icon Richard Gere helps to serve meals to migrants aboard the Open Arms ship on August 9, 2019. © Francisco Gentico, AP

"You tell me how serious a trial is where Richard Gere will come from Hollywood to testify about my nastiness," Salvini told journalists outside the courtroom on Saturday. "I hope it lasts as short a time as possible because there are more important things to take care of."

Salvini had previously quipped that he would ask Gere for an autograph for his mother.

  • Political implications: ‘Salvini’s moment has passed’

While the port stand-off two years ago dominated headlines in Italy for weeks, the trial’s opening has attracted surprisingly little attention in the Italian media. The contrast reflects both Salvini’s declining fortunes and the public’s fatigue with the subject, says Luca Tomini, a professor of political science at the Université libre de Bruxelles, describing the trial as “an echo of something Italians have put behind them”.

Salvini’s standing has suffered a sharp decline since he pulled the rug on an uneasy coalition government with the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement in August 2019, soon after the Open Arms incident. His far-right League party was sailing high in the polls at the time, and Salvini hoped to trigger a snap election. But the move backfired when rival parties agreed to form a coalition, shutting out the League. Since then Salvini has been overtaken on the right by another far-right outfit, Brothers of Italy, and a shellacking at the hands of left-wing parties in municipal elections last week confirmed the League’s dramatic slump.

“This is an extremely difficult time for Salvini, whose leadership of the right is in crisis,” Tomini told FRANCE 24. “Salvini will be hoping to use the trial as a platform, a chance to revive his flagging political fortunes in the event of a non-guilty verdict. [But] for the time being, the leading party on the right is Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. Salvini’s moment has passed.”

  • The broader picture: EU migration policy ‘in the dock’

While stoking the nationalist sentiment of his supporters, Salvini’s hard line on immigration was designed to address the grievances of many Italians who felt abandoned by the European Union. It was part of a tussle with Italy’s EU partners aimed at forcing them to take in a larger share of migrants arriving in Italy. During the stand-off, Salvini repeatedly brandished an opinion poll suggesting that two-thirds of Italians backed his stance.

The interior minister also argued that humanitarian rescue ships were only encouraging migrant traffickers in North Africa and that his policy saved lives by discouraging further risky trips across the Mediterranean – a claim experts say is not borne out by evidence.

On the other side of the aisle, Open Arms has also said it plans to use the Salvini trial as a platform to criticise the EU’s migration policy. Ahead of the proceedings, the Barcelona-based NGO tweeted: “In the court dock with [Salvini] will also be the deadly migration policy of the [EU], which has caused and continues to cause thousands of innocent victims in the #Mediterranean.”

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