Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and other senior officials have been called to testify at the next pre-trial hearing on an abuse of power case against far-right opposition leader Matteo Salvini.
Salvini faces kidnapping and dereliction of duties charges for delaying, when he was still interior minister, the disembarkation of 131 refugees and migrants – including 15 children – from the Gregoretti coastguard ship in July 2019.
Magistrates in Sicily put together a case arguing that Salvini kidnapped the refugees and migrants, keeping them at sea in fierce heat until European allies buckled and agreed to resettle them. Such a charge carries a maximum 15-year prison term.
Saturday’s hearing in the city of Catania was called to decide whether there was enough evidence to try Salvini, who heads the anti-immigrant League party.
The state prosecutor suggested there was not enough evidence and recommended that Judge Nuzio Sarpietro dismiss the case. However, Sarpietro decided to dig deeper and summoned Conte to appear at a hearing on November 20 along with Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and former Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli to question them about the affair.
A subsequent sitting was set for December 4 to hear current Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese, former Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta and Italy’s European Union ambassador Maurizio Massari.
Salvini has looked to leverage maximum political gain from the legal battle and claims that he acted for the “common interest”. He says the entire government backed his move, something Conte – who was heading a different administration at the time that included Salvini’s party – has disputed.
“I am obviously available … when the judiciary calls, even a politician should answer,” Conte was quoted as saying by ANSA news agency. “I will report on all the circumstances I am aware of, in full transparency as I have always done and will always do.”
Salvini said he was pleased by the decision. “I am absolutely satisfied,” the 47-year-old told reporters. “What I did, I did not do alone … it was part of a procedure, fair and correct, in line with Italian and international law.”
Hard line on refugees, migrants
After taking 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.
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 resolved their differences with the Democratic Party and formed an unlikely alliance.
Some observers believe that Salvini’s trial shows Italy is taking the abuse of refugees and migrants more seriously.
Last month, the left-wing Democratic Party recorded gains in local elections, boosting its leverage against its populist coalition partner. The party requested a revision of Salvini’s anti-migrant decrees, which is expected to be approved in the upcoming weeks.
The court hearing took place in a politically charged atmosphere, as the League issued a nationwide appeal to its supporters to travel to Catania to show support for Salvini.
The leader of the hard-right Brothers of Italy party, Giorgia Meloni, and Antonio Tajani, deputy head of former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, were among those who showed up.
Salvini also received a message of support from fellow right-winger Marine Le Pen, the French opposition leader and head of the National Rally party.