Italy's Matteo Salvini to stand trial on kidnapping charges over migrant standoff

Former Italian interior minister refused to let a Spanish rescue ship dock in 2019, keeping the migrants on board at sea for days

epa09126711 Italy's League Party leader Matteo Salvini (R), with his lawyer Giulia Bongiorno (L), leaves the bunker hall of the prison Bicocca at the end of the preliminary hearing for the request of referral to trial that sees the former Italian Interior Minister accused for kidnapping of person for the delays in the landing of 131 migrants from the ship Gregoretti, happened in Augusta on July 2019, Catania, Italy, 10 April 2021.  EPA/ORIETTA SCARDINO
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Former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini will stand trial on kidnapping charges, a judge ruled on Saturday.

Mr Salvini is facing the charges over his decision to refuse to let a Spanish migrant rescue ship dock in an Italian port in 2019, keeping the people on board at sea for days.

Judge Lorenzo Iannelli set a trial date in September during a hearing in the Palermo bunker courtroom in Sicily.

FILE - In this Aug. 19, 2019 file photo, an Italian Finance Police vessel patrols around the Open Arms vessel, with 107 migrants on board, as it is anchored off the Sicilian vacation and fishing island of Lampedusa, southern Italy. A judge in Sicily on Saturday, April 17, 2021, began weighing whether to put former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on trial for having refused to let a Spanish migrant rescue ship dock in an Italian port in 2019, keeping the people at sea for days. (AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli)
An Italian police vessel patrols around the Open Arms vessel, with 107 migrants on board, in 2019. (AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli)

Mr Salvini, who attended the hearing, insisted that he was only doing his job and his duty by refusing entry to the Open Arms rescue ship and the 147 people it had saved in the Mediterranean Sea.

“I'm going on trial for this, for having defended my country?" he tweeted after the decision.

“I'll go with my head held high, also in your name."

He said he had had to make "the most difficult phone calls" to his children after the hearing to inform them of the decision, adding that his "conscience was clear" and he was not "afraid" for having carried out his "duty".

Palermo prosecutors accused Mr Salvini of dereliction of duty and kidnapping for having kept the migrants at sea off the Italian island of Lampedusa for days in August 2019.

During the standoff, some migrants 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 on board were allowed to disembark in Lampedusa.

Mr Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, maintained a hard line on migration as interior minister during the first government of Premier Giuseppe Conte, from 2018-2019.

While demanding European Union nations do more to take in migrants arriving in Italy, Mr Salvini argued that humanitarian rescue ships were only encouraging Libyan-based human traffickers.

He claimed that his policy of refusing them permission to enter port actually saved lives by discouraging the risky trips across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.

His lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, said she was certain the court would eventually determine that there was no kidnapping.

“There was no limitation on their freedom," she said 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."

Open Arms welcomed the decision to put Mr Salvini on trial and confirmed it had registered as a civil party in the case, along with some survivors of the rescue, the city of Barcelona where the ship is based, and other humanitarian groups.

Open Arms founder Oscar Camps said the decision to prosecute Mr Salvini for actions taken when he was interior minister was “historic" and showed that European political leaders can be held accountable for failing to respect the human rights of migrants.

“This trial is a reminder to Europe and the world that there are principles of individual responsibility in politics," he said.

The decision to prosecute shows “it's possible to identify the responsibility of the protagonists of this tragedy at sea".

Mr Salvini is also under investigation for a similar migrant standoff involving the Italian coast guard ship Gregoretti that he refused to let dock in the summer of 2019.

The prosecutor in that case in Catania, Sicily, recommended last week that Mr Salvini not be put on trial, arguing that he was only carrying out government policy when he kept 116 migrants at sea for five days.

Italy and other southern EU nations such as Spain and Greece have long argued that other members of the 27-nation bloc must do more to help them cope with an influx of migrants.