A judge in Sicily has ordered the former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini to stand trial for refusing to let a Spanish migrant rescue ship dock in an Italian port in 2019, keeping the people at sea for days.
Judge Lorenzo Iannelli set 15 September as the trial date during a court hearing in Palermo, LaPresse news agency reported.
Salvini, who attended the hearing, confirmed the outcome and said he was only doing his job and his duty by refusing entry to the Open Arms rescue ship and the 147 people it had rescued in the Mediterranean Sea.
Citing the Italian constitution, Salvini tweeted that defending the country was the “sacred duty” of every Italian. “I’m going on trial for this, for having defended my country?” he said. “I’ll go with my head held high, also in your name.”
Palermo prosecutors have accused Salvini of dereliction of duty and kidnapping, for keeping the migrants at sea off the coast of Lampedusa for almost three weeks in August 2019. During the standoff, some people threw themselves overboard in desperation as the captain pleaded for a safe, close port. Eventually, after a 19-day ordeal, the remaining 83 migrants still onboard were allowed to disembark in Lampedusa.
Salvini had maintained a hard line on migration as interior minister during the first government of the then prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, from 2018-19. While demanding that EU nations do more to take in migrants arriving in Italy, Salvini argued that humanitarian rescue ships were only encouraging Libyan-based traffickers and that his policy saved lives by discouraging further risky trips across the Mediterranean.
His lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, said she was certain the court would determine that no kidnapping was involved.
“There was no limitation on their freedom,” she told reporters after the indictment was handed down. “The ship had the possibility of going anywhere. There was just a prohibition of going into port. But it had 100,000 options.”
The group behind Open Arms welcomed the decision to put Salvini on trial. “We are happy for all the people we have rescued … in all these years,” it tweeted.
Salvini is also under investigation for another, similar migrant standoff involving the Italian coastguard ship Gregoretti, which Salvini refused to allow to dock in the summer of 2019.
The prosecutor in that case, Andrea Bonomo of Catania in Sicily, advised against a trial, arguing that Salvini was carrying out government policy when he kept the 116 migrants at sea for five days.