The Italian Senate has voted to strip former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of parliamentary immunity so that he can face kidnapping charges for refusing to allow migrants to disembark from a ship at a port in Sicily.
If Salvini, who leads the anti-mass-migration party, Lega (League), is found guilty, he faces a ban on holding political office and up to 15 years in prison. He has said that he acted in Italy's national interest and that the charges against him are politically motivated, aimed at silencing criticism of the country's open-door migration policy.
Under Italian law, ministers enjoy immunity for actions taken while in office — unless the Senate votes to lift that protection. On February 12, the Italian Senate voted 152-76 in favor of lifting Salvini's immunity, after a parliamentary committee on January 21 recommended the action.
In December, the Court of Ministers in Catania, Sicily, ruled that Salvini should be indicted for "aggravated kidnapping" for depriving 131 migrants onboard the Gregoretti coastguard ship of their liberty by refusing to allow them to disembark. The incident, which occurred over a four-day period in July 2019, was part of Salvini's "closed ports" policy against illegal immigration and an attempt to force EU member states to share the burden of mass migration.
More than 600,000 migrants have arrived in Italy over the past four years. Under EU rules — known as the Dublin Regulation — migrants must seek asylum in their country of arrival, which, for reasons of geography, places an inordinate burden on Italy.
After five other EU member states agreed to take in most of the migrants onboard the Gregoretti, Salvini on July 31 allowed them to disembark in Augusta, Sicily, from where they were transferred abroad.
In September, Sicilian prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro said that the kidnapping accusations against Salvini were "groundless" and recommended that he be acquitted of all charges. The Court of Ministers, however, overruled Zuccaro, who is now, paradoxically, required to proceed with prosecuting Salvini, even though he has already found him to be innocent.
The charges against Salvini appear to be part of a political vendetta against him as well as his opposition to mass migration. Case in point: Although the decision to prevent those onboard the Gregoretti from disembarking in July 2019 was made by Salvini in close coordination with senior members of the Italian government, only Salvini is facing prosecution.
Addressing the Senate before the vote to lift Salvini's immunity, Lega Senator Erika Stefani presented documents showing that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio and Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede were all deeply involved in discussions over the Gregoretti. "No contrary position was taken by Prime Minister Conte," she said. "There was an implicit and also explicit sharing of Salvini's position.... This makes the hypothesis of individual action by Minister Salvini completely improbable."
The prospect of an extended legal battle appears to have energized Salvini and catapulted him into campaign mode. Before the Senate voted to lift his immunity, Salvini tweeted:
"If I have to go to court, I will explain to the judges that defending the borders of my country and protecting citizens was my duty and, serenely, I will go to that courtroom to represent millions of Italians, because I simply did what they asked me to do: to control who enters and who leaves Italy."
After the Senate voted, Salvini tweeted: "I have nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, I will go to that courtroom reaffirming what I have done. I am proud of what I did as a minister." He also called out his political opponents as the true kidnappers: "kidnappers of democracy."
Speaking to TG2 television, Salvini added:
"During my time in government we reduced the deaths at sea. We reduced landings, costs and problems for Italians. I expect an impartial judgment from the court. I feel like a true Italian, not a criminal. I defended the borders of my country and the safety of my children and the children of all Italians. I do not ask for a medal. They give me a trial. I will go to that courtroom to say that defending the borders of my country is my right and my duty."
Salvini has faced additional legal threats. In August 2018, Sicilian Prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio accused Salvini of "kidnapping, illegal arrest and the abuse of power" for preventing 150 mostly Eritrean migrants from leaving the Italian coast guard ship Diciotti unless other European Union member states agreed to take some of them in.
After a six-day standoff, the Italian government on August 28, 2018, allowed the migrants to disembark at the Sicilian port of Catania after the Vatican, Albania and Ireland agreed to take them in.
In March 2019, the Italian Senate voted to shield Salvini from prosecution in the Diciotti case.
On February 12, 2020, the Milan public prosecutor's office closed the investigation of Salvini for "defaming" Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old German captain of a migrant rescue ship. Salvini denounced Rackete for aiding illegal immigration, calling her a "pirate" and an "outlaw" and vowing to expel her from Italy. Rackete's lawyer, Alessandro Gamberini, accused Salvini of stirring up hatred: "We have already prepared the case against Minister Salvini."
Meanwhile, on February 26, 2020, a Senate committee will rule on whether to charge Salvini with "kidnapping" 107 migrants aboard the Open Arms, a Spanish NGO boat in Sicily, between August 14 and 20, 2019.
Salvini has, unsurprisingly, compared his legal harassment to that of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who has faced an onslaught of lawsuits aimed at challenging his policies. Salvini tweeted:
"Me like Trump? He has a few more billions and a few more years, but it is a habit of the left, around the world, to try to win by judicial means."
Like Trump, Salvini's legal troubles are fuelling his approval ratings. Lega is now Italy's most popular political party, with voter support at around 30%, according to opinion polls. Surveys indicate that if Italy held elections now, Lega would win a majority together with its conservative allies.