Italian senators voted on Wednesday to lift immunity for far-right leader Matteo Salvini, opening the way for a potentially career-ending trial over accusations he illegally detained migrants at sea last year.
The decision gives magistrates in Sicily the go-ahead to press charges over his decision to keep 131 rescued migrants blocked aboard a coastguard ship for six days last July as he waited for other European Union states to agree to take them in.
Salvini, the head of Italy's League party who was serving as interior minister at the time, could eventually face up to 15 years in jail if found guilty at the end of Italy's tortuous legal process. Conviction could also bar him from political office, dashing his ambitions to lead a future government.
‘Head held high'
Salvini had refused to allow rescued migrants off the Gregoretti coast guard boat – where they had been languishing for about a week in insalubrious conditions – until a deal was reached with other European states to host them.
A Catania court accused him of "abuse of power" in blocking them on board from July 27 to July 31 last year, and of illegally detaining them.
Before the debate began, Salvini took to Facebook to say he had his "head held high, with the calm conscience of those who have defended their land and people".
"If a man is not ready to fight for his ideas, either his ideas are worthless, or he is," Salvini wrote, quoting Ezra Pound, a 20th-century American poet known for his fascist sympathies.
Political ambitions at stake
Last month, fellow senators from Salvini’s right-wing League party, granting their leader's wishes, voted in a Senate commission in favor of lifting the immunity. That paved the way for Wednesday's vote in the entire Senate.
Any criminal case against Salvini could derail his ambitions to soon become Italy's premier and return his euro-skeptic populist party back to power.
Prosecutors in Sicily had investigated Salvini for the Gregoretti vessel case in July 2019. Several such standoffs played out in the Mediterranean Sea while Salvini was interior minister.
Eventually, the prosecutors shelved the case. But another judicial body, the Tribunal of Ministers, decided to proceed.
Salvini's League is now in the opposition after he pulled his party out of Conte's government in August in a failed bid for an early election.