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Italian opposition head challenges legislators to put him on trial over migrants

Matteo Salvini believes he could reap an electoral benefit if his decision last year to keep migrants on board a ship results in him being charged.

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Matteo Salvini gestures during a campaign rally (Stefano Cavicchi/AP)

Matteo Salvini gestures during a campaign rally (Stefano Cavicchi/AP)

Matteo Salvini gestures during a campaign rally (Stefano Cavicchi/AP)

Italy’s right-wing opposition leader Matteo Salvini has challenged legislators to lift his Senate immunity so he could be tried for allegedly keeping migrants hostage for days aboard a coastguard rescue ship, and some did as he asked.

But the only Senate immunity commission members who voted in favour of lifting his protection from prosecution were from his own anti-migrant League party, acting on his directive.

Nothing is definite since the whole Senate must decide on his immunity in February.

Legislators from parties in the governing coalition, unwilling to make Mr Salvini seem a martyr ahead of a crucial regional election next week, boycotted the commission vote.

That left only opposition senators among commission members. They split, five votes to five, on lifting Mr Salvini’s immunity. Under commission rules that was tantamount to allowing immunity to be lifted, a matter which will be decided by the full Senate.

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Giuseppe Conte (Chris J Ratcliffe/PA)

Giuseppe Conte (Chris J Ratcliffe/PA)

PA Wire/PA Images

Giuseppe Conte (Chris J Ratcliffe/PA)

Governing centre-left parties fear Mr Salvini pushed to have his immunity lifted to win sympathy votes for his League party in a January 26 regional election, where he hopes to triumph in a left-wing stronghold.

“If someone wants to put me on trial, that’s OK,” he tweeted on Monday. “I’ll look them in the eyes, and if it costs me going to jail, I’ll go with my head high.”

Commission chairman Maurizio Gasparri, from the centre-right opposition forces, had recommended that the members vote to keep Mr Salvini’s immunity, but the five League legislators did what Mr Salvini wanted.

In the end “a political consideration prevailed” on the part of the League, Mr Gasparri told reporters after the vote.

Mr Salvini insists that while interior minister he acted to safeguard Italy’s borders when he refused for six days to allow the coastguard ship Gregoretti to bring 131 rescued migrants ashore to Sicily in July 2019. His League party blames migrants for crime and contends there is a risk some might be terrorists.

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Migrants on board a ship heading towards Italy (Santi Palacios/AP)

Migrants on board a ship heading towards Italy (Santi Palacios/AP)

AP/PA Images

Migrants on board a ship heading towards Italy (Santi Palacios/AP)

“Drug dealers, rapists, mafiosi should end up in jail, not ministers” who defend citizens, Mr Salvini told an election rally for the League’s regional candidate.

Prosecutors in Sicily investigated him for alleged kidnapping, then decided to shelve the case, but another judicial body, the Tribunal of Ministers, which has jurisdiction over the handling of alleged crimes by government officials, wants to proceed.

Coalition parties in premier Giuseppe Conte’s government last week unsuccessfully sought to have the vote delayed until after the election for the governorship of Emilia Romagna, a long-time left-wing stronghold.

If the Democrats, a main government party, lose in Sunday’s vote to the right-wing League, Mr Salvini would gain momentum to resume pressing for an early national election.

As interior minister in Mr Conte’s previous government, Mr Salvini cracked down on migrants who were rescued by the thousand in the Mediterranean Sea from human traffickers’ unseaworthy boats.

He has insisted the decision to refuse to let the migrants disembark was shared by Mr Conte and 5-Star chief Luigi Di Maio, who was the other coalition leader in the previous 5-Star-League government.

That government collapsed in August after Mr Salvini withdrew support in a thwarted bid to trigger earlier elections.

PA