Matteo Salvini with his lawyer Giulia Bongiorno, during a break in the hearing of the Open Arms trial in the bunker hall of Ucciardone, caused by a technical failure, May 13, 2022 | ANSA
Matteo Salvini with his lawyer Giulia Bongiorno, during a break in the hearing of the Open Arms trial in the bunker hall of Ucciardone, caused by a technical failure, May 13, 2022 | ANSA

A court in Palermo has heard that migrants who were stranded on board the Open Arms rescue ship in 2019 suffered "dire conditions" and psychological distress. Italy's former interior minister Matteo Salvini is facing trial for refusing to allow the migrants to disembark.

Annabelle Montes, the chief of mission of the Spanish NGO running the Open Arms ship, has told a court in Sicily about the experiences of migrants who were rescued at sea in 2019 and stranded for days on board due to a ban on their disembarkation on Lampedusa. Montes said there were two bathrooms for over 100 people, rationed water and clothes, refugees amassed on the deck of the vessel in disastrous hygienic conditions and under psychological distress.

Montes testified on May 13 in Palermo during a hearing of the trial against then-interior minister Matteo Salvini, who is charged with abduction and dereliction of duty over his refusal to let the Open Arms disembark the migrants.

"The hygienic, physical and psychological conditions of migrants were extremely hard. People were desperate", Montes said. She described to the court the three rescue operations carried out by the NGO between August 1 and 9, 2019 and the difficult days that followed.

Dire conditions

Migrants "shared bars of soap", Montes said during the hearing. Some of them "had burns caused by a mixture of gasoline and sea water".

In the days that followed the rescue operations, the ship asked Malta, Tunisia and Italy for a safe port to disembark the migrants. Italy had already told the NGO that it could not enter its national waters, said Montes.

"As the days went by, the conditions of migrants and the sea became dire," she explained. As soon as the NGO learned that a regional administrative court (TAR) had annulled a ban to enter Italian waters, the boat sailed towards Lampedusa, "warning authorities that authorized us while continuing to ban disembarkation."

The stalemate led some refugees to "rash gestures", including jumping into the sea, Montes told the court. "Only the intervention of prosecutors in Agrigento (Sicily) unlocked the situation, enabling migrants to disembark," said Montes.

'Frustrating to be on trial': Salvini

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, who attended the hearing, listened to Montes as well as to the deposition of Fabrizio Mancini, who was the director of the interior ministry's immigration service. Mancini stressed that decisions on the assignment of a safe port were made by the interior ministry's staff.

"I believe it is not possible that a minister doesn't know what his staff is doing", Mancini told the court.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys clashed during the hearing, in particular during Mancini's deposition. Salvini's lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, repeatedly accused the prosecutor of interrupting the witness, who defended Salvini's position.

"It is part of the duties of an interior minister to take care of his country's public order and security," he said.

"At the time, there was ISIS and the concern that the huge number of people arriving could include criminals was not strange - I think it was a legitimate concern."

During a break in the hearing due to an electrical malfunction at the Ucciardone bunker hall, where the trial was taking place, Salvini stressed: "It is frustrating to be on trial in a court that hosted the worst Mafia members, after fighting human trafficking."


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