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Matteo Salvini, Italy’s former interior minister, has gone on trial accused of kidnapping after preventing a Spanish migrant rescue ship from docking in Sicily, forcing the people onboard to remain at sea for almost three weeks.
It is the first trial to go ahead against Mr Salvini for his actions preventing migrant landings while he served as interior minister during 2018-19 in an uneasy coalition between the populist Five Star Movement and his right-wing League group.
He was present in Palermo, Sicily, on Saturday for the opening of the trial which was largely procedural and lasted less than three hours before Judge Roberto Murgia set the next hearing for 17 December.
If found guilty, Salvini who has built much of his political fortune on an anti-immigration campaign could face up to 15 years in prison.
He has said the decision was not his alone, but agreed by the government, including by the then-prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.
He has insisted he was fulfilling his duty by refusing entry to the Spanish charity Open Arms’s rescue ship, and the 147 people it had saved in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya, in 2019.
He took a hard line on migrant arrivals, blocking ships and pushing for Europe to take some of the burden off Italy.
Prosecutors accuse Salvini of dereliction of duty and kidnapping for refusing to allow the ship into port for 20 days in August 2019.
During the standoff, some migrants threw themselves overboard in desperation and the captain pleaded for a safe nearby port. Some migrants were taken to land for humanitarian or health reasons, while the remaining 83 were eventually allowed to disembark on the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Judge Murgia said that Richard Gere would be allowed to take the stand as a witness, as requested by civil party Open Arms. The actor had boarded the ship in solidarity with the migrants before it docked at Lampedusa.
Salvini ridiculed the actor’s presence at the trial. “You tell me how serious a trial is where Richard Gere will come from Hollywood to testify about my nastiness,” he told journalists outside the courtroom.
Oscar Camps, head of Open Arms, said: “We expect justice for the unnecessary suffering that all the people had in those 20 days.”
A court in Catania, Sicily, earlier this year decided not to try Salvini in a similar case, for keeping 116 migrants on board an Italian coastguard ship at sea for five days, also in 2019.