Italy’s Senate has voted to send Salvini to trial. What happens now?

The Italian Senate has stripped League party leader Matteo Salvini of his parliamentary immunity, opening the way for a potentially career-derailing trial over alleged abuse of power and illegally detaining migrant while he was a government minister.

Italy's Senate has voted to send Salvini to trial. What happens now?
Matteo Salvini at the Senate hearing on removing his parliamentary immunity on February 12. Photo: AFP

The charges could see Salvini, a senator, serve up to 15 years in jail. 

Here's a look at what happens next.

Will he now face trial?

Salvini, 46, is not heading straight for the docks. It was a court in Catania in Sicily that asked the Senate to green-light a trial against him for using his power as interior minister to block over 110 rescued migrants at sea for days.

In doing so, the court overruled the Catania prosecutor in charge of the initial investigation, who had requested the case be dropped. The Senate will now send the dossier back to that prosecutor's office, obliging it to go forward with the case.

The prosecutor is expected to appeal once more for the case to be shelved, and a judge will have the final say. Should the official go-ahead be given, Salvini will be tried by a Catania court in the first instance. 

In Italy, most cases then go to appeal, before winding up at Italy's highest court in Rome for a definitive verdict.

Salvini at the February 12 Senate hearing on removing his parliamentary immunity. Photo: AFP

Is his career at stake?

Salvini is currently in opposition, but is determined to become prime minister and his anti-immigrant party is currently expected to do very well at the next elections. A conviction, however, could throw a serious spanner in the works.

Under Italian law, members of parliament ordered to serve a prison sentence of two or more years are ousted from the halls of power and unable to run in elections for up to eight years.

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

The law is less clear on what happens after a conviction in the first instance, before all appeals have been exhausted.

In theory, the Senate could suspend Salvini from the upper house for 18 months, but it would be an unprecedented move.

Is he really facing prison?

Overcrowding in Italian jails means those given sentences of fewer than two years are usually placed under house arrest or ordered to serve community service instead.

The Italian justice system is also notoriously slow, with the average criminal trial — appeals included — lasting some four years and four months, according to media reports.

Those unlucky enough to be tried in the south of the country sometimes see it drag on for over six years.

READ ALSO: Anger over plans for Italy's Salvini to speak at events in the UK

Will his 'martyr strategy' work?

“It's already clear (Salvini) intends to use the accusations against him by presenting himself a victim of 'political justice',” writes Massimo Franco, the editor of the Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest-selling daily.

La Stampa daily agrees, saying Salvini has gone with “the martyr strategy”.

But will that boost his popularity further?

While he may see some short-term gain, political analysts warn that in the long term Italians could tire of it — as they did with Salvini's right-wing ally, ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who spent years vociferously accusing Italy's judges of persecuting him at various trials.

Salvini (R) with ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2018. Photo: AFP

What else can we expect?

Salvini has complained about evenings spent doing defence prep, but much more strategy-plotting by candlelight awaits.

A special Senate committee is set to rule February 27 on another court request to proceed against him in a separate migrant case, where he is once again accused of illegal detention and abuse of power.

He is also being sued for defamation by the German captain of a charity migrant rescue vessel, and a decision is expected soon on whether that too will go to trial.

His League party has legal troubles of its own. It has been ordered to pay back some 49 million euros it owes the state, but which it claims not to have. Prosecutors are looking at whether funds have been moved and hidden abroad.

Investigators are also probing reports the party sought illicit funds from Russia.

“Salvini's judicial weather forecast looks bad,” the Corriere della Sera said.  

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Italy plans to stop ‘revolving door’ between judges and politicians

Italian lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a planned reform aimed at stopping the 'revolving door' between justice and government, as part of wider changes to the country's creaking judicial system.

Italy plans to stop 'revolving door' between judges and politicians

The proposed reform, which still has to be approved by the Italian Senate in the coming weeks, imposes significant limitations on the number of magistrates, prosecutors and judges looking to go into politics – a frequent move in Italy.

Under the submitted changes, a magistrate wishing to stand for election, whether national, regional or local, will not be able to do so in the region where they have worked over the previous three years.

At the end of their mandate, magistrates who have held elective positions will not be able to return to the judiciary – they will be moved to non-jurisdictional posts at, for example, the Court of Auditors or the Supreme Court of Cassation, according to local media reports.

Furthermore, magistrates who have applied for elective positions but have not been successful for at least three years will no longer be able to work in the region where they ran for office. 

The reform is part of a wider programme of changes to Italy’s tortuous judicial system. This is required by the European Commission to unlock billions of euros in the form of post-pandemic recovery funds.

Public perception of the independence of Italian courts and judges is among the worst in Europe, according to the EU’s justice scoreboard.