ROME â€” A judge on Saturday ordered former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to stand trial on kidnapping charges for having refused to let a Spanish migrant rescue ship dock in an Italian port in 2019, keeping the people onboard at sea for days.
Judge Lorenzo Iannelli set Sept. 15 as the trial date during a hearing in the Palermo bunker courtroom in Sicily.
Salvini, who attended the hearing, insisted that he was only doing his job and his duty by refusing entry to the Open Arms rescue ship and the 147 people it had saved in the Mediterranean Sea.
"I’m going on trial for this, for having defended my country?” he tweeted after the decision. "I’ll go with my head held high, also in your name.”
Palermo prosecutors have accused Salvini of dereliction of duty and kidnapping for having kept the migrants at sea off the Italian island of Lampedusa for days in August 2019. During the standoff, some migrants threw themselves overboard in desperation as the captain pleaded for a safe, close port. Eventually after a 19-day ordeal, the remaining 83 migrants still on board were allowed to disembark in Lampedusa.
Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, had maintained a hard line on migration as interior minister during the first government of Premier Giuseppe Conte, from 2018-2019. While demanding European Union nations do more to take in migrants arriving in Italy, Salvini argued that humanitarian rescue ships were only encouraging Libyan-based human traffickers. He claimed that his policy of refusing them port actually saved lives by discouraging the risky trips across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.
His lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, said she was serene despite the decision, saying she was certain the court would eventually determine that there was no kidnapping.
"There was no limitation on their freedom,” she told reporters after the indictment was handed down. "The ship had the possibility of going anywhere. There was just a prohibition of going into port. But it had 100,000 options.”
Open Arms, for its part, hailed the decision to put Salvini on trial and confirmed it has registered as a civil party in the case, along with some survivors of the rescue, the city of Barcelona where Open Arms is based, and other humanitarian aid groups.
The group’s founder, Oscar Camps, said the decision to prosecute Salvini for actions taken when he was interior minister was "historic,” showing that European political leaders can be held accountable for failing to respect the human rights of migrants.
"This trial is a reminder to Europe and the world that there are principles of individual responsibility in politics,” Camps told a press conference Saturday. The decision to prosecute shows "it’s possible to identify the responsibility of the protagonists of this tragedy at sea.”
Salvini is also under investigation for another, similar migrant standoff involving the Italian coast guard ship Gregoretti that he refused to let dock in the summer of 2019.
The prosecutor in that case in Catania, Sicily, Andrea Bonomo, recommended last week that Salvini not be put on trial, arguing that he was only carrying out government policy when he kept the 116 migrants at sea for five days.
Italy and other southern EU nations like Spain and Greece have long argued that other members of the 27-nation bloc must do more to help them cope with an influx of migrants.
Follow AP's global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration
Nicole Winfield, The Associated Press