Former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini has been ordered to stand trial for leaving a Spanish migrant rescue ship stranded at sea for more than two weeks in August 2019.
At a court hearing in Sicily, Judge Lorenzo Ianelli set September 15, 2021 as the trial date. Palermo prosecutors have accused Salvini of dereliction of duty and kidnapping for having refused to allow the Open Arms ship and its 147 rescued passengers to dock in Italy for 19 days.
During the standoff, some of the migrants threw themselves overboard in desperation as the captain pleaded for a safe, close port. The remaining 89 people onboard were finally permitted to disembark in Lampedusa by a court order on August 20.
Salvini, who attended the hearing in Palermo, confirmed the outcome and insisted that he was only doing his job.
Citing the Italian Constitution, Salvini went on to tweet that defending the country was the “sacred duty” of every Italian. “I’m going on trial for this, for having defended my country?” he tweeted. “I’ll go with my head held high, also in your name.”
Salvini maintained a hard line on migration in his tenure as interior minister in the first government of Premier Giuseppe Conte, from 2018-2019.
While demanding that European Union nations do more to take in migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Italy, Salvini had simultaneously argued that humanitarian rescue ships were only encouraging Libya-based traffickers – and that his policy actually saved lives by discouraging risky trips across the Mediterranean.
His lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, said she felt calm despite the decision, saying she was certain the court would determine there was no kidnapping involved.
“There was no limitation on their freedom,” she told reporters 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 a hundred thousand options.”
Open Arms, for its part, hailed the decision to put Salvini on trial. The non-governmental organisation tweeted: “We are happy for all the people we have saved so far in the sea of shame.”
Salvini is also under investigation for another, similar incident involving the Italian coast guard ship Gregoretti, which he had refused to allow to dock in the summer of 2019.
Prosecutor Andrea Bonomo recommended at a preliminary hearing in Catania last week that Salvini not stand trial in connection with that case, arguing that he was carrying out government policy when he kept the 116 migrants at sea for five days.