An Italian judge has ordered that Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, must stand trial on charges of kidnapping over his decision to prevent more than 100 refugees and migrants on a rescue ship from landing in the country in 2019.
Salvini, who was interior minister and deputy prime minister at that time, left the people stranded at sea until prosecutors ordered the seizure of the ship and the evacuation of the people on board.
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The trial will begin in the southern city of Palermo on September 15.
Proactiva Open Arms, the Spanish NGO which operated the Open Arms rescue ship at the heart of the case, welcomed the judge’s ruling.
“Violating a fundamental right such as the protection of human beings at sea for the sake of political propaganda is shameful,” said its founder Oscar Camps, adding that the trial would be “an opportunity to judge a period of European history”.
During the standoff, some of the people threw themselves overboard in desperation as the captain pleaded for a safe, close port. Eventually after a 19-day ordeal, the remaining 83 people still on board were allowed to disembark in Lampedusa.
Salvini, who has built much of his political fortune on an anti-immigration campaign, could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty at the end of a tortuous, three-stage judicial process.
A definitive conviction could bar him from government office.
“I am going to trial with my head held high, in your name as well as mine. Italy first, always,” Salvini tweeted immediately after the ruling.
“Defending our country is a citizen’s sacred duty … that is what I am being tried for.”
During his 14 months as interior minister, Salvini stopped several boats from docking in Italy in an effort to halt migrant flows, and regularly accused the charities that operated them of effectively encouraging people smuggling.
He withdrew the League from the coalition government in the summer of 2019 in a failed bid to trigger an election when his party was riding high in the polls.
The League, now part of Mario Draghi’s two-month-old national unity government, has lost more than 10 points of voter support but remains the most popular party in Italy on about 23 percent, according to most opinion polls.
Salvini is also under investigation for another, similar standoff involving the Italian coastguard ship Gregoretti that Salvini refused to let dock in the summer of 2019.
The prosecutor in that case, Catania, Sicily prosecutor Andrea Bonomo, recommended last week that Salvini not be put on trial, arguing that he was carrying out government policy when he kept the 116 migrants at sea for five days.