Salvini looks to turn crisis into opportunity in migrant kidnap trial

ROME- Matteo Salvini knows that out of adversity comes opportunity.

Italy’s former interior minister and leader of the right-wing League party went on trial in Palermo on Saturday, accused of the illegal detention of 147 migrants aboard an NGO vessel in 2019.

Salvini, a right-wing firebrand who rose to prominence thanks to his hard line on immigration, closed Italian ports to migrant vessels that summer.

The ship, named Open Arms, was stranded at sea for almost three weeks after being denied permission to land. As living conditions deteriorated on board, migrants, who were mostly African, were reported self harming and threatening suicide. They were eventually allowed to disembark after prosecutors intervened.

The trial is high profile and potentially divisive for the current coalition government led by Mario Draghi, which includes ministers from Salvini’s League.

A long list of ministers and ex-ministers are set to be called as witnesses, including former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and ex-Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio. Hollywood actor Richard Gere, who boarded the Open Arms to verify the migrants’ conditions, has also been called as a witness by the Barcelona-based humanitarian organisation which operates the boat and is a civil plaintiff in the trial.

On Saturday a judge allowed all the witnesses and adjourned proceedings until December.

Salvini’s defence strategy is to establish that the policy of closing ports was shared by the entire government in order to put pressure on EU states to reopen the debate on reallocating migrants.  His lawyers say that the migrant boat was free to leave Italian waters and had received offers from other ports including in Spain.

While the trial could drag on for years, Salvini may benefit from the short-term opportunity to reframe the political debate around immigration. His League party has recently lost ground to a far-right rival, the Brothers of Italy, and the court case could give Salvini a platform to buttress his position as Italy’s premier anti-immigration politician.

In a press conference Friday, Salvini claimed he had “defended his country and saved lives,” adding “I’m the only minister in Europe to go on trial, not for financial issues, but for having done my job, as well as reducing the number of deaths at sea.”

Outside the court on Saturday, Salvini told journalists it “was surreal to go on trial for doing my duty,” pointing out that the number of migrant arrivals by sea more than doubled after he left office.

The court will need to take into account a similar case earlier this year involving another boat, where the judge ruled Salvini did not act illegally “because his actions were aligned with the shared government policy on migration of maintaining a firm stance towards the European Union.”

The Open Arms’ operators said in a tweet that the trial would show that “no one, not even a minister can refuse a safe port to those who save lives”.



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