Matteo Salvini at a pess conference in Palermo after local judges decided to indict him in the Open Arms trial. The former interior minister is accused of kidnapping 147 migrants who were aboard the Open Arms in August 2019 | Photo: Igor Petyx/Kontrolab/picture-alliance
Matteo Salvini at a pess conference in Palermo after local judges decided to indict him in the Open Arms trial. The former interior minister is accused of kidnapping 147 migrants who were aboard the Open Arms in August 2019 | Photo: Igor Petyx/Kontrolab/picture-alliance

Matteo Salvini, the head of Italy’s far-right League party, is to stand trial for kidnapping and abuse of office. The former interior minister is charged with refusing entry to a Spanish rescue ship and the 147 people it had saved in the Mediterranean Sea.

A judge on Saturday (April 17) ordered the former Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, to stand trial on kidnapping charges. Salvini is accused of having refused to let the Spanish Open Arms migrant rescue vessel dock in an Italian port in 2019, keeping the people on board stranded at sea for 19 days.

During the standoff, some migrants threw themselves overboard in desperation as the captain pleaded for a safe, close port. After nearly three weeks, the remaining 83 migrants still on board were allowed to disembark in Lampedusa.

Salvini, who was in the court Saturday and who faces up to 15 years in prison if he is convicted, called it "more of a political than a judicial decision" and said that he had been doing his job and his duty. “I'm going on trial for this, for having defended my country?", he tweeted after the decision. “I'll go with my head held high, also in your name."

Open Arms impounded for inspection

On Sunday, Salvini noted on Twitter that the Open Arms had been impounded Saturday night in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo due to "numerous irregularities."

In an article published on Saturday, the Italian newspaper La Stampa described an official inspection of the Open Arms on the same day as the decision to send Salvini to trial as a "singular coincidence." While the coast guard said it was a routine inspection, Oscar Camps, the founder of NGO Open Arms, which operates the vessel of the same name, suggested that it was a "vendetta". He said the inspectors had been sent to justify the blockade of the ship in Pozzallo after a 14-day "unjustified quarantine."

At the same time, Open Arms welcomed the decision to put Salvini on trial and confirmed it has registered as a civil party in the case, along with some survivors of the rescue, the city of Barcelona where Open Arms is based, and other humanitarian aid groups.

Hard line

It is the second such case relating to Salvini's time as interior minister, when he banned all NGO rescue ships from entering Italian ports. He faces a similar case over his decision to block around 100 migrants from disembarking from the Italian Gregoretti coast guard boat in July 2019. Salvini has argued that the policy was not his alone, but was agreed by the government as a whole.

The anti-migration League party argues that Italy bears an unfair burden as the first point of entry into Europe for irregular migrants crossing the Mediterranean from northern Africa.

Press conference in Palermo, Sicily after the decision of local judges to indict Matteo Salvini in the Open Arms trial. The former interior minister is accused of kidnapping 147 migrants who were aboard the Open Arms in August 2019 | Photo: Igor Petyx/Kontrolab/IPA/picture-alliance
Press conference in Palermo, Sicily after the decision of local judges to indict Matteo Salvini in the Open Arms trial. The former interior minister is accused of kidnapping 147 migrants who were aboard the Open Arms in August 2019 | Photo: Igor Petyx/Kontrolab/IPA/picture-alliance


Salvini has also repeatedly claimed that humanitarian rescue ships encourage smugglers based in Libya. He says that the policy of refusing them permission to dock in Italy saved lives because it discouraged people from attempting the journey across the Mediterranean.

The findings of a study from November 2019, however, challenge this widespread claim: It found no valid statistical link between the likelihood that migrants will be rescued at sea and the number of attempted Mediterranean crossings.

Giulia Bongiorno, Salvini’s lawyer, said despite the decision that she was calm and confident that the court would eventually determine that there had been no kidnapping. "There was no limitation on their freedom," she told reporters after the indictment was handed down. "The ship had the possibility of going anywhere. There was just a prohibition of going into port. But it had 100,000 options."

The trial is set to begin on September 15.

With AFP, AP

 

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