A judge in Sicily on Saturday ordered former interior minister Matteo Salvini to stand trial for having refused to let a Spanish migrant rescue ship dock in an Italian port in 2019, keeping the people at sea for days.
Judge Lorenzo Iannelli set September 15 as the trial date during a hearing in the Palermo bunker courtroom, the LaPresse news agency reported.
Mr Salvini, who attended the hearing, confirmed the outcome and insisted he was only doing his job and his duty by refusing entry to the Open Arms rescue ship and the 147 people it had rescued in the Mediterranean.
Citing the Italian constitution, Mr Salvini tweeted that defending the country was the “sacred duty” of every Italian.
“I’m going on trial for this, for having defended my country?” he tweeted.
“I’ll go with my head held high, also in your name.”
Palermo prosecutors have accused Mr Salvini of dereliction of duty and kidnapping, for having kept the migrants at sea off the coast of Lampedusa for days in August 2019.
During the standoff, some of the 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.
Mr Salvini 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, Mr Salvini argued that humanitarian rescue ships were only encouraging Libya-based traffickers and that his policy actually saved lives by discouraging the risky trips across the Mediterranean.
His lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, said she was certain the court would eventually determine that there was no kidnapping involved.
“There was no limitation on their freedom,” she told reporters.
“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 Mr Salvini on trial.
“We are happy for all the people we have rescued … in all these years,” the group tweeted.
The group’s founder, Oscar Camps, said the decision to prosecute 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,” Mr 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”.
Mr Salvini is also under investigation for another, similar migrant standoff involving the Italian coastguard ship Gregoretti that he refused to let dock in the summer of 2019.
The prosecutor in that case, Andrea Bonomo, recommended last week that Mr Salvini not be put on trial, arguing that he was carrying out government policy when he kept the 116 migrants at sea for five days.