Italian senators will decide on Wednesday whether far-right leader Matteo Salvini should face trial on charges of illegally detaining migrants at sea last year, for which he could be jailed for up to 15 years.
A court in Sicily has recommended that former Minister of the Interior Salvini stand trial for blocking migrants on a coastguard boat last July.
Under Italian law, ministers cannot be tried for actions taken while in office unless a parliamentary committee gives the go-ahead.
A simple majority of 319 senators is required, with the result of the vote expected at about 18:00 GMT, if not earlier.
Salvini had refused to allow 116 rescued migrants off of the Gregoretti coastguard boat – where they had been languishing for about a week in difficult conditions – until a deal was reached with other European states to host them.
A Catania court accused him of “abuse of power” in blocking them on board from July 27-31, 2019, and of illegally detaining them.
Salvini insists the decision was not his alone but had the backing of the government and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Prosecutors in Sicily opened a probe into conditions on board the boat, where the many migrants shared one toilet.
The Gregoretti on July 25 took on board 140 migrants who were rescued trying to make the perilous crossing from war-torn Libya to Europe – the same day that 110 migrants drowned off the Libyan coast.
Some migrants in need of urgent medical care were taken from the coastguard vessel but 116 of them remained trapped on board for almost a week.
Under Italy’s constitution, Parliament can block legal proceedings if legislators feel the minister was performing his job and in the national interest.
Salvini has repeatedly said he wants his day in court, and most parties have said they will vote for him to go to trial.
“I will go to the Senate absolutely calm,” Salvini said on Monday. “Clearly the request for me to be tried will pass.”
Salvini’s League party joined a coalition government as the Five Star Movement’s (M5S) junior partner in 2018 but gained popularity largely thanks to his tough anti-immigrant stance.
Salvini lost power in the summer after breaking up a coalition with the M5S but retains a strong lead in opinion polls.
“I can’t wait to go to court and look the judge in the eye and explain to him that defending my country’s borders was my right and duty and not a crime,” Salvini said.
The then-interior minister’s “closed ports” policy, aimed at stopping migrant arrivals from Libya, saw his popularity numbers shoot up.
Italy has long complained that its European partners have abandoned it to deal with migrant arrivals alone.
The interior minister can limit or forbid entry into or transit through Italy’s waters on public security grounds except in cases involving military vessels or ships in non-commercial governmental service.