Former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini on Saturday appeared for the second time in court in connection with the delay in disembarking 131 migrants from the Gregoretti ship last July. At the hearing in Catania, transport minister Danilo Toninelli accused Salvini of being responsible for the delay, stressing that he had the responsibility to decide whether to disembark the migrants.
The Italian transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, and League leader Matteo Salvini on December 12 attended a preliminary hearing in Catania regarding the alleged abduction of migrants aboard the Gregoretti coast guard ship last year when they were respectively transport minister and interior minister.
"The responsibility of landings was all on the interior minister," said Danilo Toninelli.
Salvini retorted saying that Toninelli "wasn't there or, if he was, he was sleeping."
The nub of Salvini's defense argument is that he acted in concert with the rest of the government. Salvini refused a landing berth to the 131 migrants aboard the Gregoretti ship from July 27 to 31, 2019, when authorization to land at Augusta, near Siracusa, came from a judge.
An indictment has been requested for Salvini on abduction charges.
The case stems from Salvini's former closed ports policy against NGO-run migrant rescue ships during his 14-month period as prime minister.
The first to testify on Saturday in front of preliminary hearings judge (GUP) Nunzio Sarpietro was Toninelli.
Toninelli spoke for two hours, stressing that "the government's line was to involve the other European States in the allocation of migrants," adding however that "each landing was a separate case."
Questioned by Salvini's lawyer Giulia Bongiorno, a former minister and a member of the League party, on similar cases regarding the Open Arms and Diciotti vessels, Toninelli replied that he did not remember "because a lot of time has passed."
One such case involved the Diciotti coast guard ship vessel in which Salvini also refused to allow over 100 migrants to disembark for several days during a standoff with the EU.
After the hearing, Toninelli spoke to journalists, telling them he had replied to all of the magistrate's questions "with clarity".
He blamed Salvini for "promoting his image as a strong man who defended Italy's borders" while he was now trying to "place the responsibility on the transport minister."
He said: "there are national and international laws that attribute responsibility: assistance at sea is on the transport minister but assigning the port of landing is the sole responsibility of the interior minister."
Salvini said during a press conference that "I am proud of what I have done, we have done -- contrary to others I don't change my mind based on convenience. Not like Toninelli."
He accused the former transport minister of saying "that he did not remember and that, anyway, he wasn't responsible."
"He fundamentally doesn't remember anything, I hope he remembers where he is. I take responsibility, with the colleagues who were with me, entirely and with pride, for the success of policies to counter illegal immigration."
During a spontaneous statement in court on Saturday, Salvini said he "provided numbers that talk about lives: in the summer of 2018 and in that of 2019 we reduced by 55% the missing" at sea "from 1,694 to 757; we cancelled the number of bodies at sea, from 83 to 4; reduced landings by 80%, from 42,000 to 8,000."
The controversy between Toninelli and Salvini took away attention from the deposition of former defense minister Elisabetta Trenta who expressed support in court for Salvini's policy. However, she told the court that in the Gregoretti case she would have allowed migrants to disembark sooner.
The preliminary hearing was adjourned to January 28. The hearing will be held in Rome, at Palazzo Chigi, where Premier Giuseppe Conte will be questioned.
Conte also served as prime minister in the previous government. Salvini said he "expected the truth" from Conte.
Open Arms case
Salvini is also scheduled to appear in court in Palermo on January 9, for a hearing with a preliminary hearings judge (GUP) "for another trial, which is even more incredible," he said, the Open Arms case.
In the case, Salvini is also accused of allegedly kidnapping migrants on the Open Arms rescue ship when he was interior minister. The Open Arms spent almost three weeks at sea last year after Salvini refused to give the OK for it to dock.