By FRANCES D’EMILIO
ROME (AP) — The Italian Senate was voting along party lines Wednesday to allow former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to be prosecuted — as he demands to be — for allegedly holding migrants hostage aboard a coast guard ship instead of letting them get off in Sicily.
Salvini, a senator and right-wing party leader, says losing his legal immunity, facing kidnapping charges and being put on trial would be tantamount to defending Italy from migrants who enter the country illegally.
“I want to be proud of what I did, with my head held high,” Salvini told reporters while fellow senators debated his fate. “Our constitution says that protecting our homeland is a holy duty for Italian citizens.”
The results of electronic voting weren’t immediately announced since senators have the opportunity later in the day to announce their votes out loud. But based on party lines laid out during the pre-vote debate, the Senate decided in favor of letting Salvini face prosecution.
Italy’s Sky TG24 channel said that based on its count of senators’ intentions, an opposition move to prevent prosecution fell short by a handful of votes.
As interior minister, Salvini launched a crackdown on unauthorized migration, blaming migrants for crime and other problems. His policies, which included denying migrant rescue ships access to Italian ports, brought his euroskeptic League party support at home and criticism abroad.
Opinion surveys have pegged Salvini as one of Italy’s most popular leaders. However, a criminal case could derail his ambitions to put the League back in power and to become Italy’s premier; conviction carries a prison sentence of six months to 15 years. He professed confidence in the “neutrality” of magistrates “because I believe that what I have done was in the interest of the Italian people.”
Senators from Salvini’s party on a Senate commission granted their leader’s wishes and voted last week in favor of lifting his immunity, paving the way for Wednesday’s debate and vote by the full Senate.
Prosecutors in Sicily investigated Salvini for alleged kidnapping for keeping 131 rescued migrants aboard an Italian coast guard vessel for six days last summer. Similar standoffs played out in the Mediterranean Sea during the anti-immigration stance Salvini took as interior minister.
The migrants had been transferred to the Italian coast guard vessel after some of them were rescued by a cargo boat, while others were taken from their unseaworthy boat by an Italian border patrol vessel. Libya-based human traffickers launch boats crowded with Europe-bound migrants.
Sicilian prosecutors eventually shelved the case, but a judicial body decided to proceed. The Tribunal of Ministers handles cases involving alleged misdeeds government ministers performed while carrying out their official duties.
With immunity lifted, the tribunal can now decide whether Salvini committed a crime in refusing for days to let the migrants off.
Salvini’s League is now in the opposition after he pulled his party out of Premier Giuseppe Conte’s first government in August in a failed bid for an early election.
Supporting Salvini in the Senate debate Wednesday was a fellow opposition senator from ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party.
“Italians are on the side of Salvini” for trying to stop illegal immigration, Sen. Daniela Santanche said.
Another opposition senator, Emma Bonino, from the tiny More Europe party, mocked Salvini’s arguments that he was protecting Italians from danger.
“Was Italy at risk of being invaded by an Italian military ship? Was State security threatened by Italian sailors and by shipwrecked foreigners who were asking to disembark?” Bonino said.
Some senators in Salvini’s party had tried in vain to dissuade him from insisting that his immunity be lifted, among them Giulia Bongiorno, one of Italy’s most prominent criminal defense lawyers.
By insisting last month on shedding his parliamentary immunity, Salvini had gambled he’d win sympathy votes for the League, which was trying to break a decades-long hold by the left in a Jan. 26 regional election in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna. But the gamble backfired, at least in the short run, with his party failing to pull off victory.
The Senate immunity commission later this month will mull whether to waive Salvini’s immunity in another case, involving refusal to let around 100 migrants disembark from the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms. That standoff ended after 19 days when Sicilian prosecutors ordered the migrants’ evacuation to land from the ship.
Last March, while Salvini was still interior minister and his party in government, the Senate immunity commission voted against lifting his immunity in still another case involving migrants held aboard a different Italian coast guard vessel.
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