Salvini looks to head off migrant trial, seeks political gain

CATANIA, Italy (Reuters) – Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini goes to court on Saturday to try to persuade a judge not to charge him with illegally detaining migrants at sea – a crime that carries a maximum 15-year prison term.

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The high profile case centres on an incident in July 2019, when Salvini, the then interior minister, blocked more than 100 migrants aboard a coastguard sharp for six days as he waited for European allies to agree to take them in.

Salvini has looked to leverage maximum political gain from the legal battle, saying he had been acting in the national interest by slowing the flow of undocumented migrants.

“I am proud of having honoured the mandate entrusted in me by voters, defending my homeland and the security of Italians. I did it, and I will do it again,” Salvini, who heads the anti-immigrant League party, wrote on Facebook this week.

Magistrates on the island of Sicily have put together a case arguing that Salvini effectively kidnapped the migrants, keeping them at sea in blazing summer weather until European allies buckled and agreed to resettle them.

Salvini has said the group was well treated on the coastguard ship and has stressed that the entire government backed his decision. The League leader pulled out of the coalition just two weeks later and is now in opposition.

A judge will review the evidence on Saturday and could order further sittings in the days ahead. It is not clear when a decision will be made.

Salvini has assembled all the League’s parliamentarians in Catania ahead of the hearing in a show of solidarity, organising three days of debates on the future of Italy. Other prominent right-wing politicians are expected in Sicily on Saturday.

“I will be there to defend … a sacrosanct principle. A minister cannot be tried for having defended Italy’s laws and borders from illegal immigration,” Giorgia Meloni, head of the Brothers of Italy party, said on Twitter.

The upper house Senate voted in February to lift Salvini’s parliamentary immunity and let magistrates press charges. If the case eventually goes to trial and Salvini is found guilty he would be forced to step down as a senator.

Salvini was interior minister for a year and during that time focused much of his energy in trying to prevent migrants crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe.

The numbers of newcomers fell dramatically while he was in office. They have pushed higher in recent months but are nowhere near the levels seen in 2016, when more than 180,000 migrants reached Italy.

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