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Italy’s League party votes for Salvini to stand trial in migrant ‘kidnap’ case

The anti-immigrant League party has voted in favour of its leader Matteo Salvini standing trial for allegedly “kidnapping” migrants at sea, while the party's opponents abstained from the vote.

Italy's League party votes for Salvini to stand trial in migrant 'kidnap' case
League party leader Matteo Salvini at a rally with a banner reading "Proud Italian" Photo: AFP

An Italian senate committee voted on Monday to strip former interior minister Matteo Salvini of his parliamentary immunity, opening the way for him to stand trial for allegedly illegally detaining migrants last year.

Salvini, head of the right-wing populist League party, wrote on Facebook ahead of the vote that it would be “a trial against the Italian people”.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy's Northern League

The ruling followed the recommendation by a court in Sicily that Salvini stand trial for blocking migrants on a coastguard boat last July.

Under Italian law ministers cannot be tried for actions taken in office unless a parliamentary committee gives the go-ahead.

Salvini called on League senators to vote in favour of the trial, “so we can clear this up once and for all”.

The League senators on the committee voted in favour of stripping Salvini's immunity, while those from the other right and centre-right opposition parties voted against.

Opponents in the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and anti-establishment Five Star movement (M5S) boycotted the vote.

They accused Salvini of using the incident to win support ahead of a key regional election by portraying himself as a man hounded by the government and law courts merely for doing his job.

League party leader Matteo Salvini at a local election rally in Bologna. Photo: AFP

The final decision rests with the Senate, which will be called to give its opinion in a vote likely to be held in February, Italian media said.

Should Salvini go to trial, he faces up to 15 years in jail if found guilty.

Salvini had refused to allow 131 rescued migrants off the Gregoretti coastguard boat until a deal was reached with other European states to host them.

A court in Catania accused him of “abuse of power” in blocking those saved on board from July 27 to July 31.

READ ALSO: 

Salvini insists that was not an individual decision, but one backed by the government, includng current Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Prosecutors in Sicily opened a probe into conditions on board the boat, where migrants shared one toilet between them.

This is the second time the League leader has risked trial over detaining migrants.

Last year a court ruled that he should be tried for preventing 177 migrants from disembarking the Diciotti coastguard ship, but the senate voted to defend his parliamentary immunity.

The then-interior minister's “closed ports” policy, aimed at stopping migrant arrivals from war-torn Libya, saw his popularity numbers shoot up.

Italy has long complained it has been abandoned by Europe to deal with migrant arrivals alone.

“If I have to go to jail for defending an idea, I'll go with my head held high,” Salvini told a rally in the region of Emilia Romagna.

READ ALSO: Thousands rally against far right in Bologna ahead of regional elections

The region, a traditional stronghold of the left, goes to the polls on Sunday, pitting the ruling coalition parties – PD and M5S – against the League.

Salvini's anti-immigrant party has a strong lead in national polls, and is now betting on a victory in Emilia Romagna – where it is now polling neck and neck with the left-wing candidate – being damaging enough to bring down the government and trigger elections.

Salvini takes a selfie with Emilia-Romagna's regional candidate Lucia Borgonzoni at a rally in Bologna. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

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MIGRANT CRISIS

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”

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