Rome, Italy – Matteo Salvini appears in court on Saturday on charges of kidnapping more than a hundred migrants, in an event that the Italian far-right leader has attempted to use to boost his dwindling popularity.
The case relates to an incident in July 2019 when, as interior minister, he refused to allow 131 refugees and migrants – including 15 unaccompanied children – to disembark in Sicily from the Gregoretti coastguard ship for five days.
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Prosecutors in the southern Sicilian city of Catania accuse Salvini, head of the far-right League party, of abuse of power. He faces up to 15 years in jail for aggravated kidnap.
“If the court judges him innocent, he will re-emerge with new strength from his current decline, as he will be able to play the card of the victim haunted by the judiciary,” said Anna Simone, professor of sociology at Roma Tre University. “But if he is convicted, that will be Salvini’s political definite downfall.”
A preliminary hearing judge will decide on Saturday weather the case is strong enough to proceed with the trial.
“I’ll head to the court with peace of mind and a clear conscience to have saved lives and defended my country,” Salvini said on Friday in the Sicilian city, where he has been holding rallies for three days.
A stream of his political supporters, from far-right leader Giorgia Meloni to representatives of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing party Forza Italia, are expected to attend. A 500-strong police force has been deployed to prevent clashes between Salvini supporters and left-wing protesters.
If the court decides to proceed, it would mark the first time Salvini’s “closed ports” policy would be tried.
In a show of force when he took office as interior minister in 2018, Salvini declared Italy’s ports off-limits to rescue ships, triggering a series of standoffs between rescue vessels and the Italian authorities.
While no date has yet been set, there is a second hearing awaiting Salvini for the illegal detention of 107 migrants on board of the Open Arms rescue ship, in August last year.
Prosecutors believe that by closing ports, Salvini violated international law under which Italy had a responsibility to provide a “place of safety” for rescued people.
A further charge is that Salvini abused his power by depriving the people on board the Gregoretti of their personal freedom.
For his part, Salvini claims that he acted for the “common interest” and that the waiting was necessary to reach a deal about the redistribution of the refugees and migrants with other countries.
His defence team stresses that the decision to hold the group of people was reached collectively, with the government.
Salvini’s popularity began to fall in August last year, when he sought to trigger a snap election by pulling the plug on a fractious governing coalition between the League and the populist Five Star Movement.
His gamble backfired when his former coalition partners smoothed their differences with the centre-left Democratic Party and formed an unlikely alliance.
“That is when he lost his institutional credibility; since then it has been a steady decline,” Simone said.
Some observers believe that Salvini’s trial shows Italy is taking the abuse of refugees and migrants more seriously.
Local elections two weeks ago saw gains by the left-wing Democratic Party, boosting its leverage against its populist coalition partner.
As its first move, the party requested a revision of Salvini’s anti-migrant decrees, which is expected to be approved in coming weeks.
The two trials are limiting “what seemed to be a freefall in xenophobic feelings”, said Arturo Salerni, the lawyer representing Open Arms and president of the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties.
“The fact that the court says that a minister has to be tried for kidnapping on two different instances because people’s human rights and international conventions can’t be considered as waste paper, well that is a guarantee that certain things can’t be done with impunity,” Salerni said.