Italy softens migration rules amid trial of former deputy PM Matteo Salvini

Head of far-right Lega party implemented aggressive anti-migrant policies before he was pushed out of office

Far-right leader Matteo Salvini, who is accused of illegally blocking more than 100 people aboard a coastguard ship in 2019, is seen outside the court in Catania, Italy, October 3, 2020. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

The Italian government has approved decrees on the treatment of migrants and rescue vessels in the Mediterranean, dropping stricter measures led by far-right former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.

The centre-left coalition government led by Giuseppe Conte on Tuesday lifted sanctions against migrant rescue vessels operating in Italian waters and returned humanitarian protection to arriving asylum seekers.

In 2018 and 2019, Mr Conte’s former coalition partner and Lega Party leader, Mr Salvini, introduced two security decrees that imposed harsh restrictions on rescue ships and migrants arriving in Italy.

Particularly criticised were fines of up to $1.18 million against search and rescue ships operating between Europe and Africa, imposed by Mr Salvini during his 14 months in office.

Under the new rules, fines of between $17,780 and $58,162 and prison sentences of up to two years can be imposed against captains of migrant vessels.

The League's leader Matteo Salvini, center wearing a face mask, leaves after a hearing in court in the Sicilian city of Catania, southern Italy, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Italy's right-wing former interior minister Salvini, appeared Saturday before a court in Sicily that will decide whether he will face trial for blocking 131 migrants for several days on a coast guard ship in 2019.  (Mauro Scrobogna/LaPresse via AP)

But they will only be charged on ships that fail to communicate adequately with authorities before their arrival in Italian waters.

The Lega leader also repeatedly denied ships carrying rescued migrants entry into ports, resulting in months-long standoffs.

Mr Salvini used Italy's highly divisive migrant crisis to dominate the previous government.

He pushed his anti-immigration stance, posting relentlessly on Facebook and Twitter about the arrival of migrants on Facebook and Twitter.

The extent of the far-right figurehead’s aggressive anti-migrant stance has led to criminal charges being brought against him.

Mr Salvini is accused of kidnapping 131 migrants after he blocked them from disembarking an Italian coastguard vessel in 2019.

Migrants stand on a dock as they disembark a boat on the Sicilian Island of Lampedusa, Italy July 24, 2020. REUTERS/Mauro Buccarello     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

He was placed under investigation in the months after he disallowed the Gregoretti from docking for six days.

Conditions on the ship deteriorated considerably over the course of the standoff.

The Italian Senate authorised legal proceedings against Mr Salvini in February.

Current government officials including Mr Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio have been summoned to testify in the case.

Mr Conte is due to testify at the next hearing on November 20.

Mr Salvini was pushed into the political wilderness in September last year when, with a healthy lead in the opinion polls, he pulled his coalition out of its alliance with the populist Five Star Movement, hoping the move would provide a path to power through elections.

The prospect of the eventual alliance between the centre-left Democratic Party and M5S to thwart his plans did not enter his calculations.