In the Sicilian capital of Palermo, the trial of Matteo Salvini begins today. The leader of the right-wing populist Lega party is accused of kidnapping, for banning a ship with migrants from docking in Lampedusa in 2019. For days the ship bobbed around the Mediterranean with 147 passengers on board, under harsh conditions.
According to the Public Prosecutor‘s Office, Salvini, Home Secretary, robbed the migrants of their personal freedom. Salvini, as minister, regularly refused requests from ships to dock. He believes that he served the Italian people a service by combating illegal migration.
‘With head lifted ‘
The investigation into the role of Salvini began as early as 2019, after the Open Arms ship was seized by the prosecutor and put the onboard to safety. “I’m a kidnapper? The idea alone is ridiculous,” said the Lega leader after a judge decided there would actually be a trial.
On social media Salvini wrote about the trial: “Defending the homeland is the sacred duty of every citizen. Do I have to stand trial for defending my country? I‘m going there with your head raised, in your name.”
So Salvini is expected in court today. There is a lot at stake for him: if convicted, he can face up to fifteen years in prison. In addition, that would mean expelled him from his political functions. He is currently a member of the Italian Senate in addition to Lega-leader.
“Do you think it’s normal for a country to take the Home Secretary to justice because he does what he promised during his election campaign?” , asked Salvini rhetorically at a meeting with Lega-voters last month.
Salvini says the Open Arms could have sailed to Spain or Malta, where the ship could have brought the migrants to land after just a few days. That that didn‘t happen is the captain’s fault, according to the Lega leader.
Salvini and his lawyer‘s main defence is that he acted in consultation with the cabinet and in line with government policy. Giuseppe Conte, who was Prime Minister at the time, said that granting a safe haven to ships is the exclusive competence of the Interior Minister.
That the trial leads to a conviction seems unlikely for the time being. In a similar case earlier this year, the same charge did not result in a trial because another judge ruled that the kidnapping charge was unfounded. The fact that the Palermo judge will continue the trial is a reason for Salvini to speak of a “political process”.
Despite this reproach, it is expected that the politician will use the process to put the issue of migration back on the map in Italy, as he traditionally scores well with his electorate.
And Salvini can use some political success: over the past few months he has been in the clinch with fellow parties on several occasions, including the introduction of the corona pass. Partly as a result of that disagreement, Lega scored particularly badly in the local elections last month.
Dozens of witnesses will be heard in several sessions over the coming months, including former Prime Minister Conte and Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi di Maio. The most rumored witness is American actor Richard Gere, who volunteered at Lampedusa in August 2019. “I’ll ask for an autograph afterwards,” Salvini joked about that.
When a ruling comes, it is not known. However, the process will last at least several months. Should it come to a conviction, Salvini has two more chances of appealing it.