Italy's Salvini investigated over migrant rescue standoff as anti-League protests spread

The former interior minister has frequently clashed with rescue organisations and barred ships from Italian waters and ports

FILE PHOTO: League party leader Matteo Salvini speaks during an anti-government demonstration in Rome, Italy, October 19, 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo

Italy’s former interior minister Matteo Salvini has been placed under investigation by prosecutors over his refusal to allow a humanitarian rescue ship to enter Italian waters this summer.

The country’s ANSA news agency said Mr Salvini was being investigated for abduction and dereliction of duty over the standoff with a search and rescue ship operated by Spanish group Proactiva Open Arms.

The logjam involving 164 migrants aboard the Open Arms lasted for almost three weeks before the ship was eventually allowed to dock at Lampedusa after a deal was reached on sharing the migrants between other European Union states.

Mr Salvini dismissed the investigation by Sicilian prosecutors, labelling it a waste of judicial officials’ time and taxpayers’ money.

As interior minister, Mr Salvini took a hardline stance on immigration and frequently clashed with search and rescue groups operating in the Mediterranean.

The leader of the anti-immigrant League party has avoided trial for similar scenarios in the past.

In March, Italy’s Senate voted to block his trial for allegedly confining migrants rescued at sea after nearly 200 migrants were stuck aboard an Italian rescue ship in an ordeal lasting 10 days. Italy’s constitution says parliament can block proceedings if politicians agree the minister was working in the state’s interest, and a majority of senators voted in favour of an immunity commission recommendation.

The hardliner’s popularity in the northern Emilia-Romagna region has been hit by an unlikely challenge in the last week from a grassroots movement known as “the sardines”.

The group emerged in the city of Bologna last week when four friends invited people to join a protest against Mr Salvini's League ahead of an election in the region.

Mr Salvini is looking to lead a resurgent right to its first victory in the region in the January 26 vote and has said that if the left loses power in the wealthy area then it should also quit central government and open the way for a national ballot.

But between 12,000 and 15,000 people answered last Thursday's protest call, squeezing together like sardines in Bologna's main square to denounce Mr Salvini, whose anti-immigrant, Italy-first rhetoric has resonated with many voters.

"To those who shout the loudest, we are responding by being as silent as fish, but in a shoal, packed one next to the other. There are more of us than them," said Mattia Santori, 32, one of the organisers. Some in the crowd held up cut-out sardines and the name caught on.

Buoyed by the unexpected success of the Bologna rally, a new protest was called for Monday in the nearby city of Modena, where some 7,000 people defied driving rain in silent protest.

Using "sardine" as a tag on social media, demonstrations were announced on Tuesday across the region, including Reggio Emilia on Saturday and Rimini on Sunday.

The movement also started to extend beyond Emilia-Romagna, with "sardine" rallies called for in the Tuscan city of Florence, the Lombardy capital Milan and the Sicilian capital Palermo.

Mr Salvini has accused the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) of being behind the movement. "Scratch a sardine and you will find a PD'er," he wrote on Twitter.

The former interior minister lost his position in August when the government collapsed after his failed attempt to seize power.

Prosecutors have two weeks to decide whether to proceed with the case.