Italian Senate votes for trial of Matteo Salvini in migrant case

Former Deputy Prime Minister could face up to 15 years in jail if convicted

Matteo Salvini looks up as he sits in the Italian Senate in Rome, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. The Italian Senate is deciding whether opposition populist leader Matteo Salvini should be prosecuted as he has demanded for allegedly holding migrants hostage aboard a coast guard ship when he was interior minister. (Roberto Monaldo/Lapresse via AP)
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Italy's hard-right leader Matteo Salvini will face trial on charges of illegally detaining migrants at sea after Italian senators voted to lift immunity for the former deputy Prime Minister.

Senators voted 152-76 in favour of removing the legal protection that had shielded him as a former cabinet minister, in a move that paves the way for what could be a career-ending trial.

The decision gives magistrates in Sicily approval to press charges over his decision to keep more than 100 migrants aboard a coastguard ship for six days last July as he waited for other EU states to agree to take them in.

Mr Salvini, the head of Italy's anti-immigration League party, who was serving as interior minister at the time, could face up to 15 years in jail if found guilty at the end of Italy's tortuous legal process.

Conviction could also bar him from political office, ending his ambitions to lead a future government.

"I have defended Italy. I have full and total faith in the justice system," Mr Salvini said after the vote.

"I am not worried at all, and I'm proud of what I've done," he said, adding he would "do it again when I get back into power".

Senators from Mr Salvini’s party on a senate commission granted their leader's wishes and voted last month in favour of lifting his immunity, paving the way for Wednesday's debate and vote by the full Senate.

"I have chosen against my own interests to go to court and rely on the impartiality of the judiciary," Mr Salvini said.

"Unlike others who run away, I will calmly await judgment, first of the courts and then of the Italian people when they get to vote."

Mr Salvini faces no immediate risk under Italy's complex legal system but the case could prove a distraction to other investigations against him.

This month another tribunal in Sicily recommended that he stand trial over another migrant stand-off last August. Parliament is expected to decide on the case this year.

During his 14 months as interior minister, Mr Salvini made tackling migrant arrivals by sea a priority, barring rescue ships from ports and threatening the charities operating them with fines.

In July, two weeks before he abandoned a coalition with the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, he refused to let migrants leave the Gregoretti coastguard vessel, ignoring pleas from human rights groups.

Magistrates in Sicily say this was an abuse of power and amounted to a form of kidnapping.

But under Italian law, former ministers cannot be tried for actions taken while in office unless Parliament authorises it.

"The Senate was asked a precise question: did minister Salvini act in the national interest, yes or no?" leftist politician Anna Ascani said.

"For us it is 'No'. This was election campaigning using 100 people aboard an Italian ship."

The Gregoretti investigation echoes another case from last year when magistrates sought to try Mr Salvini over his decision to keep 150 migrants on a coastguard ship for five days in August 2018.

Parliament blocked that request, with Five-Star rallying to his support, saying the decision to keep the migrants at sea was a collective one.

This time, Mr Salvini's former allies say he acted without prior assent.