Rome, Italy | AFP | Italian senators will decide Wednesday whether far-right leader Matteo Salvini should face trial on charges of illegally detaining migrants at sea last year, for which he could be jailed for 15 years.
A court in Sicily has recommended that former interior minister Salvini stand trial for blocking migrants on a coast guard boat last July.
Under Italian law, ministers cannot be tried for actions taken while in office unless a parliamentary committee gives the go-ahead.
That committee voted in January to strip the anti-immigrant head of the Lega party of his parliamentary immunity, and now the final decision rests with the Senate.
A simple majority of 319 senators is required, with the result of the vote to be known around 1800 GMT, if not before.
Salvini had refused to allow 116 rescued migrants off of the Gregoretti coastguard boat — where they had been languishing for about a week in insalubrious conditions — until a deal was reached with other European states to host them.
A Catania court accused him of “abuse of power” in blocking them on board from July 27-31, 2019, and of illegally detaining them.
Salvini insists the decision was not his alone, but had the backing of the government and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Prosecutors in Sicily opened a probe into conditions aboard the boat, where the scores of migrants shared one toilet.
– Closed ports –
The Gregoretti on July 25 took on board 140 migrants who were rescued trying to make the perilous crossing from war-torn Libya to Europe — the same day that 110 migrants drowned off the Libyan coast.
Some migrants in need of urgent medical care were taken from the coastguard vessel but 116 of them remained trapped on board for almost a week.
The then-interior minister’s “closed ports” policy, aimed at stopping migrant arrivals from Libya, saw his popularity numbers shoot up.
Italy has long complained that its European partners have abandoned it to deal alone with migrant arrivals.
Under Italy’s constitution, parliament can block legal proceedings if lawmakers feel the minister was performing his job and in the national interest.
The interior minister can limit or forbid entry into or transit through Italy’s waters on public security grounds except in cases involving military vessels or ships in non-commercial governmental service.
Salvini has repeatedly said that he wants his day in court, and most parties have said they will vote for him to go to trial.
“I will go to the Senate absolutely calm,” Salvini said on Monday. “Clearly the request for me to be tried will pass.”
Salvini’s Lega party joined a coalition government as the Five Star Movement’s junior partner in 2018, but gained popularity largely thanks to his tough anti-immigrant stance.
“I can’t wait to go to court and look the judge in the eye and explain to him that defending my country’s borders was my right and duty and not a crime,” Salvini said.
Conte, who has remained prime minister while Salvini provoked his own ouster from government in August last year, says he was not the one to decide whether the migrants should be allowed into port.
“The minister (Salvini) had a new decree approved which strengthened his powers,” Conte said in January. “He claimed the right to decide if and when to disembark the people aboard the Gregoretti.”
Salvini managed to avert trial in a similar episode, in which he prevented 177 rescued migrants aboard the coast guard vessel Diciotti from disembarking for several days in August 2018.
Then, the Lega-M5S government agreed it was a joint decision and the Senate subsequently blocked Salvini from facing trial.
Salvini, whose party recently lost a key regional election in Emilia Romagna, faces yet another hurdle on February 27.
A Senate committee is to decide on lifting his immunity for forcing the charity rescue vessel Open Arms to remain at sea for days off the coast of Lampedusa in August last year.
Given the slow pace of the Italian justice system, Salvini faces no immediate risk.
However, if he were to go to trial and exhaust all appeals to end up convicted at the Supreme Court, he would be barred from politics for six to eight years.