Far-Right Leader Matteo Salvini to Face Trial for Illegally Detaining Migrants at Sea

The Italian senate voted to strip him of immunity.
July 31, 2020, 12:01pm
Matteo Salvini
Matteo Salvini. AP PHOTO/ALESSANDRA TARANTINO

The Italian Senate has voted 149 to 141 to see far-right leader Matteo Salvini tried for allegedly illegally detaining over 160 migrants at sea in August of 2019.

Public prosecutors argue Salvini broke international law by denying migrants a safe port. In Italy, Members of Parliament are protected with immunity and cannot be tried unless the Senate green lights the proceedings. The vote paves the way to a trial that could see him face up to 15 years in jail.

Salvini leads the anti-immigration League party and served 14 months as the interior minister with Italy’s previous government. In August of 2019, he made news when he refused to let over 160 migrants disembark from the Spanish NGO ship Open Arms for 19 days. The ship had rescued the migrants in two operations near the Libyan coast on the 1st of August.

The next day, the NGO asked for a safe port to dock in Malta, the closest country at the time, as well as Italy, the next-closest, and Spain, where the ship was registered. Italy denied access, based on a newly-passed law later considered unconstitutional. By then, the ship, overburdened and with more than 30 minors onboard, was already close to the Italian coast. It docked in rough waters 800 metres from the island of Lampedusa – and stayed there for 19 days.

The humanitarian crisis was matched by a political one. At the time, the League was in a tumultuous coalition with the populist M5S party. On the 13th of August, the Italian courts overruled Salvini’s ban because of the “exceptionally grave and urgent” conditions on the ship. The two governing parties were completely split on the issue, with Salvini refusing to let the migrants disembark, even though six countries had already agreed to take them. Eventually, on the 20th of August, the migrants were allowed in, after experts warned many were experiencing severe anxiety and suicidal thoughts. The coalition split that day.

This is not an isolated case. The Senate voted not to proceed in the very similar Diciotti case in 2019, when the League was still in government, but authorised the courts to go ahead with a trial in the Gregoretti case in February of 2020. This means Salvini could be facing two trials in the coming months, a potential blow to his aspirations to become Italy’s next Prime Minister. He claims the trial is politically motivated.

Salvini enjoys widespread popularity, especially on social media. Under his leadership, the League jumped from the fringes to Italy’s first party in just under seven years – although polls show he’s lost votes in the past 12 months. Today, #ImWithSalvini trended on Twitter, with supportive messages from his voters, but it was quickly hijacked by K-pop stans promoting LGBTQ+ messages and thirst traps.

“Let’s see if a lesbian tweet gets to top #I’mwithsalvini. It’d be funny,” wrote one user.