By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's Senate lifted the immunity of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Thursday, opening the way for a trial of the right-wing leader on charges of kidnapping over the detention of those on a migrant ship at sea last year.
The upper house voted along party lines and the result, 149 in favour versus 141 against, was widely expected. It is the second time Salvini has lost parliamentary immunity over a migration charge this year.
"It will be a joy for me to go to (court in) Sicily to defend my right to defend our beautiful country," Salvini, 47, told the Senate before the vote, knowing that it would go against him.
Magistrates in Sicily want to try Salvini for alleged abuse of office and illegally detaining the migrants, saying he acted independently of the government.
"This evening I will go home with my head high," he said. "This is a political trial and if anyone thinks they have weakened me, they are mistaken."
Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant League party, blocked the ship - which was carrying more than 100 migrants rescued at sea - from docking last August, while he was interior minister in the previous government.
A prosecutor eventually ordered the seizure and evacuation of the ship, operated by the Spanish group Open Arms.
There was no indication when a trial could be held. The indictment decision rests with a senior judge. Salvini could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty at the end of a tortuous, three-stage judicial process. A definitive conviction could bar him from office, scuppering his ambition to lead a future government.
The Senate already lifted Salvini's immunity in February in a case involving another blocked ship and a preliminary hearing on that case is scheduled for Oct. 3 in Sicily.
As interior minister for 14 months, Salvini took a hard line against charity ships that rescued migrants at sea, accusing them of de facto collaboration with human traffickers.
"Those who support open ports have blood on their hands," Salvini said.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte and Angelo Amante in Rome and Wladimiro Pantaleone in Palermo; Editing by Alex Richardson)