Italian Deputy PM Salvini faces trial over migrant ship blockade

Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini finds himself at the center of legal scrutiny as he defends his controversial 2019 actions blocking a migrant rescue vessel.

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini defended his stringent approach to illegal migration during a court appearance in Sicily, where he is facing charges of kidnapping and dereliction of duty related to his actions in 2019.

Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League and the interior minister in a prior government, staunchly denied the charges, asserting that his decisions were made “in the interest of national security.”

In August 2019, Salvini, known for his commitment to “closing the ports” to NGO rescue ships, signed a decree preventing the Spanish NGO vessel Open Arms, carrying 147 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, from entering Italian territorial waters.

The ship remained at sea for almost three weeks, causing outcry as crewmembers reported a rapid deterioration in the migrants’ physical and mental well-being, leading to a crisis due to dire sanitary conditions on board, including a scabies outbreak.

The situation garnered international attention, with Hollywood star Richard Gere visiting the Open Arms ship in a display of support and calling on the Italian government to assist the migrants. Salvini responded by urging Gere to take the migrants “back to Hollywood.” Agrigento Prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio later ordered the preventative seizure of the vessel, citing the difficult conditions on board.

During his recent court appearance in Palermo, Sicily, Salvini maintained that he believed “the situation was not at risk” on the ship and defended his actions as being “in full consciousness.” He asserted, “I am taking full responsibility for what we did,” highlighting what he sees as unprecedented results in fighting human trafficking and saving lives during his tenure as interior minister.

Salvini stated, “I am proud to say that no migrant died at sea while I was minister of the interior.” However, UNHCR data contradicts this claim, revealing 926 deaths in the central Mediterranean between June 2018 and September 2019. He also emphasized a 90% reduction in migrant arrivals under the “closed ports” policy, a claim supported by figures from the Italian interior ministry, though it is important to consider the multifaceted influences on migrant flows.

The trial, which commenced in October 2021, could result in Salvini facing up to 15 years in prison if convicted. Throughout his hour-long spontaneous deposition, Salvini sought to demonstrate that his hard-line approach to immigration had the backing of the entire Italian government at the time, including Prime Minister Conte.

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