Palermo: Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, was on Friday due to testify in a trial over whether he illegally blocked migrants from disembarking at an Italian port under a previous government.
Salvini, the head of the far-right League party that is part of current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s coalition, strongly denies charges of deprivation of liberty and abuse of office over the incident in August 2019.
He has been on trial in Palermo, Sicily, since October 2021, accused of using his then-position as interior minister to detain 147 migrants at sea, refusing to let them disembark from the “Open Arms” charity rescue ship where sanitary conditions were rapidly deteriorating. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted.
A hardline populist known for an “Italians first” policy, Salvini has repeatedly used attacks against illegal immigration to boost his political capital.
In 2019, serving in a coalition government led by Giuseppe Conte, he implemented a “closed ports” policy, under which Italy refused entry to charity ships that rescue migrants making the often deadly journey across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe.
Salvini claimed he was protecting Italy with his security law, casting it as a tough measure against traffickers who organise the frequently overcrowded boats from North Africa.
The 50-year-old has said the decision to prevent the rescue vessel operated by Spanish non-governmental organisation Open Arms from docking was agreed by the government, including by Conte.
He has repeatedly scoffed at the court for holding what he deems to be a politically motivated trial, taking selfies in front of the defendants’ cells in the courtroom and posting patriotic messages on his social media accounts.
Salvini also mocked the plaintiffs’ high-profile witness, actor and activist Richard Gere, who had boarded the migrant ship in solidarity – but in the end did not testify.
Friday’s hearing, which is due to begin at 9:30 am (0830 GMT), is the first time Salvini himself takes the stand.
The blockade of the ship lasted nearly three weeks before the migrants were finally allowed to disembark on the tiny island of Lampedusa following a court order.
Members of Open Arms have testified that the migrants’ physical and mental wellbeing reached a crisis point, with dire sanitary conditions onboard including a scabies outbreak.
Passengers became so desperate that some of them jumped into the water in a stand-off that made global headlines and drew condemnation from humanitarian groups.
The incident took place at a time of political crisis in Rome, after Salvini pulled out of the government in an attempt to trigger new elections he hoped would put his League party in the driving seat.
Conte instead formed a new coalition, and in 2020 the Senate voted to strip Salvini of his parliamentary immunity, allowing him to face trial for both the Open Arms stand-off and another similar case.
The other trial – in which Salvini was accused of refusing to allow 116 migrants to disembark from the Italian Gregoretti coastguard boat in July 2019 – was thrown out by a court in Catania in 2021.
Conte has testified in the current trial that he called for the evacuation of unaccompanied minors from the Open Arms ship.
The ex-premier said he tried to “exercise moral suasion” with Salvini, saying he considered that “the decision to keep them on board had no legal basis”. The defence is expected to begin its case next month.