“I received another summons to a trial because in August I blocked the offloading of illegals from the ship of a Spanish NGO. They’re trying everything now to stop me and to scare you,” Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega party, wrote on social media this weekend about the new investigation against him, sticking to the script honed to perfection by the PR specialists running his social media machine, nicknamed “the Beast.”
“Am I risking another trial for having defended the Italian borders? I did it, I would do it again and I will do it again. I’m not afraid of anything or anyone,” he ranted in one of his customary tough-guy displays.
The case concerns the ship belonging to the NGO Open Arms, a case that, even more than the Diciotti and Gregoretti cases, highlights the gravity of Salvini’s actions when he was at the helm of the Interior Ministry: starting with the fact that, according to the judges’ opinion, it is unlawful to prohibit entry to a civilian vessel that has performed a duty, namely that of rescuing shipwrecked people at sea.
The Palermo Court of Ministers has officially asked the Senate for permission to proceed with the trial against former Interior Minister Salvini, accused of both kidnapping and dereliction of official duties. The offenses were committed from Aug. 14 to 20, and involved depriving 164 migrants on board the vessel of the Catalan NGO of their personal freedom.
In November, the Public Prosecutor of Palermo, Francesco Lo Voi, after receiving the Open Arms case file from his subordinate, the Public Prosecutor of Agrigento, Luigi Patronaggio, agreed with the latter’s finding that crimes have been committed. Now, the Court of Ministers has also ruled in favor of the arguments put forward by the prosecutors: according to the three judges on the panel, Caterina Greco, Lucia Fontana and Maria Cirrincione, the Security Decree cannot be applied to ships rescuing people in distress, because “rescue at sea is mandatory,” just as there is always an obligation on the part of states “to indicate the POS [port of safety], i.e. a safe port.”
Furthermore, Salvini made the decision personally and “was not a political act but an administrative act,” and thus the responsibility cannot be “shared” with the other members of the government at the time.
On Aug. 1, after the shipwrecked people had been rescued off the coast of Libya, the Interior Minister signed a ban on the ship’s entry into Italian territorial waters, a document later signed by the M5S Ministers of Infrastructure and Defense at the time, Toninelli and Trenta. The NGO filed a lawsuit at the Administrative Regional Court of Lazio, which on Aug. 14 ordered that the vessel be allowed to enter the country. The Interior Ministry passed a second entry ban, one which Toninelli and Trenta refused to sign. As a result, the ship remained at anchor one mile off the coast of Lampedusa for a week, forced to endure the stormy sea, because the Minister of the Interior continued to forbid the landing.
In total, the migrants had to spend 19 days on the bridge of the Open Arms: in desperation, some of them even tried to jump into the sea to reach the island. To resolve the situation, Public Prosecutor Patronaggio arrived in Lampedusa personally by helicopter, boarded the ship for an inspection accompanied by doctors and psychiatrists, then ordered that the ship be seized and that the shipwrecked and the crew be allowed to land. In his order, the prosecutor accused the Interior Ministry of “an attitude of deliberate omission to the detriment of the migrants.”
Salvini’s chief of staff, Matteo Piantedosi, also ended up under investigation, as he was at the top of the chain of command. Ten days later, the Preliminary Court of Agrigento took up the case, writing that the people stranded had suffered from “an illegal and willful deprivation of personal freedom. There were about 100 shipwrecked people on board, with serious risks to their safety and their physical and mental health.” The same court ordered that the ship be returned to the NGO, as “there are no evidentiary requirements and no responsibility can be assigned to the crew.”
According to the latest ruling by the Court of Ministers, Salvini “knowingly ignored the health emergency, vetoing the local authorities”; furthermore, there was no indication at the time that the landing could represent a danger to public order and safety, a condition that must be met in order to impose a ban on landing according to the Security Decree 2.0. Moreover, Salvini forcibly kept minors on the ship “in spite of a court order,” and “ignored the Administrative and Regional Court of Lazio by invoking invalid legal interpretations.”
On Feb. 12, the Senate will vote on whether to authorize Salvini’s trial in the Gregoretti case. For the Diciotti case, he was let off the hook with the help of his government colleagues at the time. This time, he has no choice but to play the martyr: “I will demand to go to trial,” he says.