A judge in Italy’s Catania in the Sicily region on Friday ordered that Italian Senator Matteo Salvini will not stand trial for refusing to allow migrants to disembark from a coastguard ship in July 2019. The right-wing leader had been accused of kidnapping the migrants.
From June 2018 to September 2019, Salvini, the leader of far-right party Lega Nord, was Italy’s deputy prime minister and minister of the interior. During this time, as part of his “closed ports” policy, he blocked several boats carrying migrants from docking in Italy, accusing the NGOs operating these boats of encouraging human smuggling.
In July 2019, Salvini blocked the disembarkation of 116 migrants—mostly Sudanese—from Italian Coast Guard ship Bruno Gregoretti for five days. These migrants had been rescued after five days in the Mediterranean Sea. Amid difficult conditions on the patrol vessel Salvini waited for other EU countries to agree to admit the migrants. While the 15 unaccompanied minors on the ship were able to disembark in three days following the local juvenile court’s intervention, the remaining could only leave the ship after other EU countries agreed to admit them.
In April, prosecutors asked judge Nunzio Sarpietro not to allow Salvini to be tried, arguing that his decision not to allow migrants to disembark had not violated international treaties and could not be considered to amount to kidnapping. Salvini said he was defending his country amid scores of migrants arriving on Italy’s shores after crossing the Mediterranean, and that it was the government’s policy. Sarpietro found that Salvini had not committed a crime by not allowing the migrants to disembark.
Following the preliminary hearing, Salvini tweeted, “Today it is recognized that I am not a ‘kidnapper’ and have done my duty as a minister. Nice message to smugglers and mafiosi: in Italy defending borders is not a crime, but a right and a duty. ‘The defense of the homeland is a sacred duty of the citizen’, art. 52 of the Constitution.”
In Sicily’s capital of Palermo a similar case is ongoing against Salvini, where a judge allowed last month for him to stand trial. One hundred forty-seven migrants aboard a vessel operated by Spanish NGO Open Arms were not allowed to disembark for six days in August 2019. Facing charges of kidnapping and abuse of office, Salvini could be imprisoned for up to 15 years and barred from government office if found guilty. The trial will commence on September 15.
The Italian Senate voted in July to lift Salvini’s parliamentary immunity so he could be tried.
The Italian government is seeking to revive the “Malta agreement” for sharing migrants with other EU countries, which lapsed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, after more than 2,200 Tunisian and Libyan asylum-seekers arrived on its island of Lampedusa last weekend.