League leader Matteo Salvini talks to reporters in Palermo, Sicily, on January 9, 2021. The League was in the bunker hall of the Ucciardone prison in Palermo for the preliminary hearing against him over the Open Arms case | Photo: ANSA/ IGOR PETYX
League leader Matteo Salvini talks to reporters in Palermo, Sicily, on January 9, 2021. The League was in the bunker hall of the Ucciardone prison in Palermo for the preliminary hearing against him over the Open Arms case | Photo: ANSA/ IGOR PETYX

The former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini on Saturday appeared before a Palermo judge in connection with a 2019 incident during which he blocked migrants at sea. He faces charges of abduction and of failing to carry out an act as public official.

Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League party, on Saturday (January 9) attended the preliminary hearing of a case in which he faces charges of abduction and a suspected abuse of power.

In August 2019, when he was interior minister, he refused to let a migrant rescue ship, the Open Arms, dock in an Italian port.

The hearing was held in the bunker hall of the Ucciardone prison in the Sicilian city of Palermo under tight security. There was a small group of demonstrators outside.

Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League party, told the court: "I am here only for defending my country's borders."

Deprivation of freedom in Open Arms case

Back in August 2019, the Open Arms with 147 migrants rescued at sea was forced to anchor off the island of Lampedusa while conditions on board deteriorated. The standoff ended when a local prosecutor ordered the disembarkation of the migrants.

The political leader is accused of illegitimately refusing the Open Arms to dock in Lampedusa, thus depriving 147 rescued women, men and minors of freedom.

"I am here because I defended the borders of my country from potentially dangerous people," he said.

He referred to the fact that two of the refugees who were kept aboard the ship for 20 days, despite the distress call launched by the Catalan ship, are allegedly in detention and that the ship's commander, a plaintiff in the case, is allegedly under investigation.

The prosecutor in the case, however, denied this allegation in court.

The Open Arms spent nearly three weeks at sea in August 2019 after Salvini refused to give the OK for it to dock when he was minister in Premier Giuseppe Conte's first cabinet.

All motions of plaintiffs admitted

Proceedings have been postponed until March 20, when the court is expected to rule on the request to indict the League leader.

The Preliminary hearings judge (GUP) on Saturday admitted all motions presented by the plaintiffs.

Seven migrants who were held on board will take part in proceedings, the NGO Open Arms and its commander, as well as a number of associations.

Also admitted were requests by Salvini's defense team for the court to include in the trial the deposition of former transport minister Danilo Toninelli in a similar case.

The case is currently being examined by a court in Catania, one of several stemming from Salvini's former closed ports policy against NGO-run rescue ships during his 14-month sting as interior minister.

Salvini's defense

Salvini's defense team claims that his refusal to allow the ship to dock was a political act of the cabinet in which he served rather than an individual decision that he took as the interior minister. Such a thesis has already been rejected by the Court of Ministers in Palermo that investigated the case in 2019, requesting the Senate to authorize legal action against Salvini.

In addition, Salvini's lawyer claims that the Open Arms ship acted on its own, outside of sea rescue rules, choosing to sail towards Lampedusa despite the fact that Malta and Spain had offered permission to dock, in an alleged attempt to take undocumented migrants to Italy.

For this reason, Italy did not allow it to enter into its territorial waters, the attorney said.

The Court of Ministers, however, has stated that the "commander of the Open Arms respected international legislation, immediately involving also its flag State, which did not act until August 18."

According to the judges, the vessel's "refusal of a safe port (only partially) offered by Malta and offered (late) by Spain" was based on "motives that were entirely justified" and the fact that the vessel travelled towards Italian coast was not "unequivocally preordained for the illegal transfer of migrants to Italy."

The preliminary hearings judge will now hear witnesses in court in order to decide whether to confirm the evaluation made by the Court of Ministers and indict Salvini or whether to acquit him.

The court has been adjourned to March 20.

 

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