Italy’s former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, is due to appear before two Sicilian courts on Saturday, with judges to decide whether the far-right politician will face trial for illegally detaining refugees and migrants on two rescue ships, when he was in office.
The leader of the far-right League party could be indicted for kidnapping and dereliction of duty in two separate court cases involving the coastguard ship Gregoretti and the Spanish NGO rescue vessel, Open Arms.
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In July and August 2019, people on board the two vessels who had been rescued from the Mediterranean, including children, were prevented from disembarking for five and 20 days respectively while Italy negotiated their relocation to other EU countries.
Salvini insisted Italy’s ports would remain “closed” under his watch.
The first preliminary hearing in the Gregoretti case took place on October 3 in Catania. The hearing was adjourned as the judge summoned several government ministers as witnesses, including Salvini’s former ally and current Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio, whose Five Star Movement was previously in a governing coalition with the League.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is due to appear before the Catania court on Saturday, with proceedings scheduled to start at 9:30am, local time.
The first preliminary hearing in the Open Arms case is scheduled to begin at the same time in Palermo, and therefore likely to be postponed on the day.
The clash is due to delays in the Catania hearing because of a strike over COVID-19 infections at the court, Italian media reported.
“Italy is not the first country to breach international law or to breach the law of the sea, we’ve seen it in Malta recently, in Greece earlier this year, arguably in Hungary,” Sangeetha Iengar, a migration barrister and a member of the Border Criminologies research group at the University of Oxford, told Al Jazeera. “It signals to Europe’s borderlands that domestic draconian policies can’t be used to undo international obligations, or to weaponise the right to asylum.”
Precedent for international law
While Salvini’s political career is at stake in the trials, for Open Arms – who will request to stand as a civil party in the criminal proceedings – as well as for European civil society as a whole, it is an opportunity to restore the centrality of international law principles in European policies on sea rescue and refugees.
“What faces trial is an important part of European history,” Veronica Alfonsi, spokeswoman for Open Arms in Italy, told Al Jazeera. “We have seen throughout Europe a series of violations of human rights and international law. This trial would restore some truths and principles on which our democracies are founded … besides seeking justice for all the people who had to endure so many days at sea in those conditions.”
Some of the migrants and refugees who were on board have been contacted to testify at the trial.
All eyes are on the Palermo case
Salvini, who is expected in Catania on Saturday, has remained defiant.
“I am proud to have defended Italy: I would do it and I will do it again,” the leader wrote on Twitter when the Italian Senate voted to lift his parliamentary immunity in July this year.
Many in his camp see the trial as political.
“Putting a minister on trial for doing what his mandate required, that is defending the nation and its borders and abiding by the electorate’s will as expressed by their vote, is a frightening precedent in Italian democracy,” said the leader of the increasingly popular far-right Brothers of Italy party, Giorgia Meloni.
On July 31, 2019, 114 people on board Gregoretti were allowed to disembark in Catania after five European countries and the Italian Catholic Church had agreed to take them in.
In the Open Arms case, about 150 people were held for 20 days off the coast of Lampedusa, whose port was within view.
As days passed, children were allowed to leave, while others jumped overboard to reach the island. Prosecutors who inspected the ship at the end of August eventually ordered disembarkation citing dire humanitarian conditions on board.
The Open Arms case took place amid a crisis of government that led to Prime Minister Conte offering to resign – one of the details that will be under the scrutiny of the two courts, which are expected to discuss, among other issues, whether Salvini was solely responsible for the decisions.
In both cases, the League leader faces kidnapping charges, but only in the Open Arms case he could face the additional charge of dereliction of duty.
“This makes the Palermo trial more important, from our perspective,” Antonello Ciervo, a lawyer and a member of the migrant legal aid group ASGI, told Al Jazeera. “A conviction of that kind would set an important precedent because it would mean that, should the interior minister refuse to assign a POS [Place of Safety], that would be a dereliction of duty. The minister would be obliged to assign one once the humanitarian nature of the rescue is ascertained.”
Possible jail time
The trials could have consequences for Italian politics.
If indicted and found guilty, Salvini could face up to 15 years in jail for aggravated kidnapping due to the presence of minors on board the ships. Even with a suspended sentence that would see him avoid jail time, he could be barred from office if he is convicted to more than two years.
Salvini turned the first Catania hearing into a rally in his support.
While the League still tops some opinion polls as Italy’s most popular party, Salvini’s bid to call for early elections last year backfired when an improbable alliance between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement replaced the former Five Star-League coalition.