Italy’s populist leader Matteo Salvini responded with defiance to a court’s recommendation that he stand trial for kidnapping migrants, stating in a Facebook post Thursday: “I did it, and I’d do it again.”
The charges stem from a stand-off in August, when Salvini — an anti-immigration hardliner — refused to allow around 150 mostly Eritrean migrants to disembark a coast guard vessel following their rescue in the Mediterranean.
The interior minister was placed under investigation for alleged abuse of power and holding people against their will. The tribunal, which reviews investigations relating to politicians, ruled that the case of aggravated kidnapping could proceed.
As Salvini is a government minister, the matter will go before Italy’s senate, which will hold a vote on whether he should face a criminal trial.
The brash leader took to social media Thursday to rail against the “absurdity” of the case.
“I confess,” he said in a Facebook video, “there is no need for a trial. It’s true, I did it, and I’d do it again.”
He wrote: “I risk three to 15 years in prison for blocking illegal landings in Italy. There are no words.”
The court ruling came as a surprise, as prosecutors had previously recommended the case be dropped. It caused an immediate outcry among Salvini’s supporters on social media, with the hashtag #SalviniNonMollare (“Salvini, don't give up”) trending on Twitter, along with another declaring #IoStoConSalvini (“I’m with Salvini.”)
Shoshona Fine, migration expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News that the case was a reflection of a climate in Italy where immigration has become highly politicized, leading to extraordinary measures being taken in the name of defending the nation.
“When migration has been politicized in this way, we’re creating a situation where exceptional practices become normal and justified,” she said. “Rule of law is to some extent suspended in the name of protecting society from external threats.”
Salvini, whose nationalist Lega party governs in coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, has taken an uncompromising stance on immigration, refusing to allow ships that rescue migrants from Mediterranean waters to dock in Italy’s ports.
The policy has dramatically slowed the flow of migrants into Italy, the primary landing point for crossings from Libya, helping to propel Salvini’s nationalist Lega party to the top of the polls. The country has taken in more than 650,000 migrants who arrived by boat since 2014.
Salvini, the country’s most powerful politician, jointly serves as deputy prime minister alongside Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio. But he now faces an uncertain future, particularly given his coalition partner’s track record of demanding the resignation of politicians under investigation.
While Salvini says he can count on the backing of his own Lega senators, the Five Star Movement, which sees itself as an anti-corruption party, has previously insisted politicians under investigation stand down.
If Five Star’s senators vote to shield Salvini from criminal proceedings, it could face a backlash from its supporters. However, if Salvini stands trial, it risks scuttling the coalition government. So far, the party has not indicated how it will vote.
Despite the attacks on his migration policies from multiple fronts, Salvini has refused to budge on his hardline stance.
He reiterated Friday his refusal to allow the Sea Watch 3, a German-run humanitarian vessel carrying 47 migrants rescued from the waters off Libya Saturday, from entering Italian ports.
The crowded ship has appealed for shelter from 7-meter high waves and icy winds amid treacherous conditions, as the rescued migrants hunker under tarpaulins on deck.
Italy’s coastguard said Friday it could moor 2 km (1.2 miles) off Sicily’s shore, but Salvini stressed it must look elsewhere to make landfall.
“We can't wait to see them arrive, safe and sound, in other European countries. There’s no space in Italy,” he said.
Salvini’s anti-immigration laws, ordering the shuttering of refugee centers and mass deportations, have drawn criticism from European allies, and led to diplomatic tensions with France after Paris voiced concern that Italy was drifting away from European principles.
In response to the criticism, Salvini launched broadsides at French President Emmanuel Macron, calling him a “terrible” president who needs to be removed.
Cover image: Italian Interior Minister and deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini delivers to Rome Municipally a house confiscated, on January 25, 2019 in Rome, Italy. (Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)