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The Italian senate wants to see far-right leader and former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini put on trial for kidnapping migrants, and Salvini has hit back with predictable defiance.
Salvini, the 46-year-old leader of the far-right League party, will face trial on charges of illegally detaining migrants at sea and for abuse of power, after senators voted Wednesday to strip him of parliamentary immunity. If found guilty, he faces up to 15 years in jail and a ban on holding office.
The charges relate to Salvini’s refusal last year to allow 116 migrants who had been rescued from the Mediterranean by a coast guard ship to disembark in Italy. Salvini was serving as interior minister at the time, and the move was part of his hard-line “closed ports” policy against illegal migration.
Prosecutors had accused him of abusing his powers for keeping the migrants trapped on board for five days last July while he waited for other European countries to agree to take them in. But until Wednesday, they'd been prevented from launching a prosecution, under an Italian law granting politicians immunity for actions taken while they were in office.
The senate’s vote has jolted Salvini into full campaign mode. He took to social media and the airwaves Thursday to insist he is not a criminal, but a patriotic defender of the country’s borders, and to label his rival lawmakers “kidnappers of democracy.”
Following the senate’s 152-76 vote to strip him of immunity, he compared his situation to the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump, saying they were both the targets of politically-motivated legal maneuvers.
“Me, like Trump?” he wrote on Twitter. “He has a few more billions and a few more years, but it's a bad little habit of the left, going around in the world, to try to win by judicial means.”
He also paraphrased a quote by poet and fascist sympathizer Ezra Pound: “If a man is not willing to fight for his ideas, either his ideas are worth nothing, or he is worth nothing.”
It’s not the first time Salvini’s faced legal trouble over his hard-line immigration policy: he faced similar accusations last August when he prevented 177 rescued migrants leaving a coast guard ship for several days, but the senate ultimately upheld his immunity. And later this month, a senate committee will decide on whether his immunity should be stripped in another case in which he forced a rescue vessel to stay at sea.
The slow pace of the Italian justice system will give the populist leader plenty of time to rile up his base into outrage over the trial, in hopes of returning his far-right party to power. Even if he is convicted, it may not spell his complete political demise: fellow right-winger Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving postwar prime minister, was convicted of tax fraud in 2013, but had his sentence commuted and, after the ban on his holding office expired, returned to politics as a member of the European Parliament last year.
Cover: Opposition populist leader Matteo Salvini gestures during press conference at the Foreign Press association, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)