When the time came to vote on whether to try their leader, the 60 senators of the Lega did as they said they would and walked out of the hall at the Palazzo Madama. It was a melodramatic gesture that Matteo Salvini himself had asked for in the speech that the former Interior Minister held in the morning, at the end of which a heated argument between the M5S senator Marco Pellegrini and the Lega senator William De Vecchis turned into a shoving match.
With the exception of that scuffle, the day of Salvini’s parliamentary “verdict” ended exactly as expected, with the Senate voting by a large majority (152 votes against 76) to approve the request of the Court of Ministers of Catania to put Salvini on trial for kidnapping in the case of the migrants sequestered aboard the Gregoretti vessel.
There were some prominent dissenters: the former Five Star senators Saverio De Bonis and Carlo Martelli, Senator Pierferdinando Casini (who Salvini took the time to quote and personally thank) and the two representatives of the “Per le Autonomie” Senate group for regional and linguistic minorities, Dieter Seger and Meinhard Durnwalder, who voted in favor of the motion presented by Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia that called for refusing the authorization to proceed with the trial.
The case file will now return to the Court of Ministers in Catania, and will be sent over to the Prosecutor’s Office in the Sicilian capital to proceed with setting up the trial.
For this special occasion, even Giorgia Meloni made a floor speech to express her solidarity with her ally. The Lega leader’s speech, however, began with a rather hollow brag: “Let me say that, if there’s anyone ‘running away’ from this hall today, it’s not those from our ranks, but those from the ranks of the government,” he said, seizing on the fact that no ministers were present at the proceedings. President Casellati had to intervene and remind him that the presence of the government is not expected on such occasions, when the decisions are the exclusive competence of the senators. His fact check fell on deaf ears.
In a rambling speech lasting almost 30 minutes, Salvini took a long time to get to the merits of the issue at hand—the failure to allow 131 migrants to disembark from the Coast Guard ship—and said little about them, preferring to dwell on anything and everything else. He name-checked his own children several times, so much so that he drew exasperated protests from the majority, to which he responded by reminding them that no one among those protesting “got a text message with the words ‘Forza papa!’” (“Go dad!”).
He accused the government of arguing amongst themselves and never making any decisions, he talked about construction sites that were closed down, he reminisced about demolishing a villa owned by the Casamonica clan with a bulldozer, he boasted about his security decrees and about shutting down some migrant reception centers. He took the time to praise Montanelli and, without explicitly mentioning their names, Falcone and Borsellino.
When he finally spoke about the Gregoretti scandal, he did nothing more than repeat his talking points for the past few weeks: “I’m not afraid of the trial,” stressing that the whole affair had been decided in agreement among those in the government. “Everyone knew that if they voted for the Lega, we would do everything to close the ports and fight illegal immigration,” he said.
He also claimed that the political decisions were made “together with the Five Stars. The statements from those days by Toninelli, Bonafede and Di Maio were made on July 28, 30 and 31. Either they were there and they agreed to it, or they were there and they didn’t understand what was happening. And that would be an even more serious matter.”
Finally, he claimed once again that he merely defended the national borders, which is why he wants to “clarify once and for all before the judges whether I have done my duty or I’m a kidnapper.”
Salvini’s real defense was entrusted to his lawyer, Senator Giulia Bongiorno. According to the best legal mind of the Lega, in the Gregoretti affair “the whole government made decisions—but I’m not saying this to point a finger at anyone, because no one has committed any crimes.”
As proof of the atmosphere of congeniality in which the decisions were being made, the senator recalled a quote by Prime Minister Conte in which he said: “We at the head of the government have been working on it, because it’s necessary to relocate first and then allow the landing.” Furthermore, Bongiorno argued that the accusation of kidnapping didn’t fit: “Whoever believes that something bad has been done—that’s my conclusion—has to create a new crime: that of ‘slowing down a landing,’ and then they can prosecute Salvini.”
Others had a very different interpretation of the events—among them the former commander of the Coast Guard, Senator Gregorio De Falco (ex-M5S), who emphasized the technical differences between the Gregoretti ship and the Diciotti, itself involved in a scandal for which there was a similar request to proceed to a trial against Salvini in the past (which failed thanks to the votes of the M5S).
“The Diciotti is a 100-meter long vessel, built and equipped for rescue on the high seas,” the senator recalled, “while the Gregoretti is 60 meters long and built for fishing surveillance, and can’t keep a large number of people on board for a long time, exposed to the sun: it was an act of pointless cruelty.”
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