Italian former minister on trial for kidnap over migrant ship

Richard Gere called to testify against Matteo Salvini who refused to allow boat dock in 2019

 Matteo Salvini, flanked by his lawyer Giulia Bongiorno (right), meets journalists in front of the bunker of the Pagliarelli prison after a hearing on the Open Arms trial in Palermo, Sicily. Photograph: Igor Petyx/EPA

Matteo Salvini, flanked by his lawyer Giulia Bongiorno (right), meets journalists in front of the bunker of the Pagliarelli prison after a hearing on the Open Arms trial in Palermo, Sicily. Photograph: Igor Petyx/EPA

 

Italy’s former interior minister Matteo Salvini has gone on trial charged with kidnapping for refusing to allow a Spanish migrant rescue ship to dock in Sicily, keeping the people onboard at sea for days in 2019.

It is the first trial to go ahead against Mr Salvini for his actions preventing migrant landings while he served as interior minister during 2018/19 in an uneasy coalition between the populist Five-Star Movement and his right-wing League group.

Mr Salvini was present for the opening day of the trial in Palermo, Sicily, which was expected to deal mostly with procedural requests.

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.

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

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

During the near-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 on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

“We expect justice for the unnecessary suffering that all the people had in those 20 days,” said Oscar Camps, head of the Spanish non-governmental organisation Open Arms.

Witnesses to be called during the trial include Italy’s former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, other senior Italian politicians and Hollywood actor Richard Gere, who was in Italy at the time and joined Open Arms to deliver food to people on board.

On Saturday, Mr Salvini ridiculed the decision to allow Gere to testify. “Now you tell me how serious is a trial where Richard Gere comes from Hollywood to testify on how bad I am,” Mr Salvini said.

“Defending a country’s borders, security, honour and dignity is not just a minister’s duty but everyone’s duty,” he said. “Being put on trial for just doing my duty is surreal.”

It is not clear whether Gere will appear in person to give evidence at the trial.

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