Italian far-right leader faces trial for refusing entry to migrants at sea

Matteo Salvini, known for an 'Italians first' policy, is charged with kidnapping and abuse of office in connection with the illegal detention of 147 migrants aboard their rescue boat in August 2019.

147 rescued migrants were blocked from disembarking a ship and held in dire conditions for 20 days

Italy's former interior minister Matteo Salvini appeared in court in Palermo, Sicily, on Saturday, charged with kidnapping for refusing to allow a Spanish migrant rescue ship to dock in Sicily in 2019. (Gregorio Borgia/The Associated Press)

Italy's far-right former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, went on trial Saturday charged with kidnapping for refusing to allow a Spanish migrant rescue ship to dock in Sicily in 2019, keeping the people onboard at sea for days. 

It is the first trial Salvini will face for his actions preventing migrant landings while he served as interior minister from 2018-2019 in an uneasy coalition between the populist 5-Star Movement and his far-right League party. 

During the nearly three-week standoff, some migrants threw themselves overboard in desperation and the captain pleaded for a safe, nearby port. Some migrants were taken to land for humanitarian or health reasons, while the remaining 83 were eventually allowed to disembark in Lampedusa. 

Several migrants jumped off the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms on Tuesday as it got close to the shore in Lampedusa. The Italian coast guard came to the rescue of those who jumped, according to Reuters reporters. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

Salvini was present for the opening day of the trial in Palermo, Sicily, which included procedural requests like witness lists.

Among those being summoned is American actor Richard Gere, who visited the migrants aboard the Open Arms after seeing their plight while on a family vacation in Italy. 

"It is surreal undergoing a trial because I did my job," Salvini said. "I feel sorry because, I mean, tell me how serious can be a trial where Richard Gere will come from Hollywood to testify about my career."

He has insisted he was fulfilling his duty by refusing entry to the Open Arms rescue ship, and the 147 people it had saved in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya. 

Actor Richard Gere, right, talks with migrants aboard the Open Arms Spanish humanitarian boat as it cruises in the Mediterranean Sea, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. Gere is expected to testify at Salvini's trial. (Valerio Nicolosi/The Associated Press)

'Unnecessary suffering'

Salvini took a hard line on migrant arrivals, blocking ships and pushing for Europe to take some of the burden off Italy.

Prosecutors accuse Salvini of dereliction of duty and kidnapping for refusing to allow the ship into port for days in August 2019. 

"We expect justice for the unnecessary suffering that all the people had in those 20 days," said the head of the Spanish NGO Open Arms, Oscar Camps. 

A court in Catania, Sicily, earlier this year decided not to try Salvini in a similar case, for keeping 116 migrants on board an Italian coast guard ship at sea for five days, also in 2019.