Italy's PM called to testify at Salvini migrant kidnap trial


Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, has been summoned to testify in the trial of the far-right former interior minister Matteo Salvini, who is accused of kidnapping 131 migrants after he prevented them from disembarking from a coastguard ship in 2019.

During his 14 months as interior minister, Salvini repeatedly denied access to ports to ships carrying rescued migrants. The policy resulted in numerous standoffs, leaving migrants stuck at sea for weeks before European countries could identify a port that was willing to accept them, or courts intervened.

On 25 July 2019, the coastguard ship Gregoretti was heading to Italy with more than 130 migrants on board, but once they arrived off the coast of Lampedusa, Salvini denied them permission to dock. The migrants and coastguard officers remained on the ship for six days. After sanitary conditions on the vessel became worrying, the migrants were authorised to disembark on the evening of 31 July.

Sicilian prosecutors placed Salvini under investigation a few months later, and the Italian senate formally authorised criminal proceedings against the leader of the League in February.

“I will plead guilty to defending Italy and the Italians,” Salvini told the press last week.

The first preliminary hearing began on Saturday in a courtroom in Catania, and there was no shortage of controversies.

Catania’s prosecutors, known for launching several investigations against rescue boats operated by aid groups and who in this trial should be arguing against Salvini, asked the judge to drop the charges. They said the decision to prevent the migrants from disembarking was political and was intended to “redistribute the passengers to other European countries”.

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Judge Nunzio Sarpietro, however, has decided he wants clarification, so he has summoned Conte, the foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, and the former infrastructure and transport minister, Danilo Toninelli. All were part of the government at that time with Salvini, before he withdrew from the coalition.

Salvini’s defence team insists that the decision to hold the people on the ship was not Salvini’s alone, but reached collectively from within the government. It will be up to a preliminary hearing judge to decide whether the case is strong enough for the trial to proceed.

The first step is to understand whether Salvini acted alone, or if he was the simple executor of an agreed decision supported by the government at the time.

Sarpietro has also requested the acquisition of other evidence relating to numerous cases in which Salvini prohibited the landing of migrants.

Conte was called to testify at the next hearing on 20 November.

“It was my first time in court as a potential culprit and defendant,” Salvini told the press after the trial. ‘‘Now, I keep going, with my head held high, certain that I have always acted in the defence of the homeland and for the safety of Italians.”



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