It was a magistrate, the head of the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Agrigento, Luigi Patronaggio, who resolved the Open Arms case by seizing the ship and ordering that the migrants disembark in Lampedusa, after they had been stuck on board for 19 days in terrible conditions. This was on August 20, two years ago. Now it is up to another magistrate, the preliminary hearing judge Lorenzo Jannelli, to decide whether to put Matteo Salvini, accused by the Palermo prosecutor’s office of kidnapping and refusal to perform official duties, on trial.
The former Interior Minister, according to the prosecution, prevented the landing of refugees for no reason, putting their lives at risk. In Sunday’s hearing, the presiding judge admitted the establishment of 18 civil parties to the trial, including the Spanish NGO and several associations, as well as seven migrants who now live outside Italy and who have relied on a pool of lawyers. In the bunker hall of Ucciardone prison, where Falcone and Borsellino held the maxi trial against the Cosa Nostra, the former minister, accompanied by his lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, sat on the bench of the accused.
Outside the prison, as a welcome party for the armored cars that entered directly into the atrium of the penitentiary, there were some militants from anti-racist associations and movements, with signs and slogans: “Hatred is on trial.”
The crimes that the investigators—headed by prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi, assisted by assistant prosecutor Marzia Sabella and substitute Geri Ferrara—are charging Salvini with are serious. The defense rejects his guilt, arguing, as it had done in the preliminary hearing in Catania (where Salvini is under investigation for the Gregoretti scandal), that the decision not to land the ship in Lampedusa was shared by the entire Conte government.
This is a notion rejected by the Prosecutor’s Office, which, in order to put it to rest, has filed two letters in which Prime Minister Conte asked his minister to let the minors from Open Arms land. Bongiorno, Salvini’s attorney, tried to minimize the importance of these letters: “These are letters that actually approve Salvini’s actions,” she told reporters at the end of the hearing, “because he doesn’t say ‘be careful about what you are doing,’ but says ‘take care of the minors,’ who were in fact disembarked.”
For the civil parties to the suit, the presiding judge’s approval for them to be parties is a fundamental first step. “Former minister Salvini has caused pain and suffering to 151 people just to advance his election campaign: all this has a price, and it is right that justice should be done,” says Oscar Camps, founder of the NGO. “We are in Palermo on behalf of all the people who have their lives and their rights violated while trying to cross the sea.”
Among the documents filed by the lawyers was also the appeal won at the Regional Administrative Court of Lazio in July 2019, which led to the annulment of the decree of prohibition to enter Italian waters that Salvini had signed under the security decree, thanks to which the Open Arms was able to approach Lampedusa—where, however, it was blocked again by Salvini, who refused to authorize the landing, claiming that Spain should take charge of the vessel.
“It was kidnapping pure and simple,” says lawyer Arturo Salerni, who is assisting the civil parties along with colleagues Mario Angelelli, Gaetano Pasqualini and Giuseppe Nicoletti.
Also among the papers filed was the ruling with which the court of Ragusa acquitted the commander and the head of mission of Open Arms, Marc Reig Creus and Ana Isabel Montes Mier, who were accused of aiding and abetting illegal immigration and private violence. “In this way, Salvini will no longer be able to say that the people behind the rescue operations are under investigation,” said attorney Salerni.
After a four-hour hearing, the presiding judge adjourned the session until January 14, for the appointment of an expert who will have to translate the Open Arms logbook produced by the defense. On March 20, however, the hearing will focus on the merits of the case, with the requests of the prosecution and the intervention of the defense and civil parties.
“We are satisfied that there was a first step towards finding out the truth,” said Open Arms. “It is important that not only the former Minister of the Interior is on trial, but also a piece of European history, the one of a lack of assistance, of rejections by proxy, of predictable shipwrecks, of agreements with illiberal and violent countries.”
“For years we have stressed that we have always respected the international conventions,” urged the Spanish NGO. “We have defended the life and fundamental rights of every human being. We hope that the responsibilities of European governments and the importance of the work and commitment of humanitarian ships that have operated in recent years in the Mediterranean are clear once and for all.”
According to Mediterranea Saving Humans, “the accused is not only Mr. Salvini, but the Italian and European governments that continue to violate the Hamburg Convention on the obligation of rescue at sea and the Geneva Convention on the prohibition of the rejection of refugees.” And it stressed that “today, those whom these ministers or former ministers have always criminalized, as guilty of saving lives, are here.”
Among the civil parties approved to join the trial by the magistrate are ARCI Sicilia, the Antidiscrimination Association, Mediterranea Saving Humans, the Association of Democratic Jurists, the Association of Immigration Legal Studies, Cittadinanza attiva, Legambiente and AccoglieRete. A 17-year-old boy is among the migrants who are part of the civil action.