Accessibility links

Breaking News

Italy's Salvini Looks to Avoid Trial Over Migrant Standoff

FILE - Migrants swim after jumping off the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms, close to the Italian shore in Lampedusa, Italy, Aug. 20, 2019.

Italy's far-right League leader Matteo Salvini, looking to avoid trial for alleged kidnapping, has defended his decision to detain migrants on a coastguard boat last July, saying the move had been backed by the whole government.

Salvini was interior minister at the time and had pledged to curtail mass immigration from Libya by making it much more difficult for boat migrants to enter Italian ports.

In July, some two weeks before he pulled the League out of its coalition with the 5-Star Movement, Salvini refused to let 131 migrants disembark from the Gregoretti coastguard vessel until other European states agreed to take them in.

A special tribunal has recommended that Salvini stand trial for the incident on charges of illegally detaining the migrants, and he faces up to 15 years in jail if found guilty.

However, under Italian law, former ministers cannot be tried for actions undertaken while in office unless a parliamentary committee authorizes the probe.

The 23-strong committee is due to take a decision on Jan. 20, and Salvini's lawyer handed over documents for his defense on Friday, including emails from Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's office, which Salvini says prove the government had backed his actions.

"The management of migrants was not the fruit of the autonomous will of the interior ministry, but an initiative of the Italian government," Salvini wrote in the documents seen by Reuters, adding that he had acted out of "national interest".

The Gregoretti investigation echoes another case from earlier last year when magistrates sought to try Salvini over his decision to keep 150 migrants aboard a coastguard ship for five days in August 2018.

On that occasion, the parliamentary committee blocked the request to pursue the probe, with Salvini's then-coalition partner the 5-Star Movement rallying to his support, arguing that the decision to keep the migrants at sea was a collective one.

Salvini's position seems less secure this time around, with 5-Star still furious over his decision to quit their coalition.

5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio said last month that Salvini had acted on his own initiative in the Gregoretti case, suggesting his party would vote for its former ally to stand trial.

Prime Minister Conte, who has repeatedly clashed with Salvini since forging a new coalition between the 5-Star and Italy's center-left, said in December he did not recall being involved in the Gregoretti decision.

However, he acknowledged that his office sought help from European allies to take in the African migrants, with five countries eventually stepping forward to break the deadlock and allow the group finally to disembark.