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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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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Doubts rise over ‘loose cannon’ Salvini after Italy’s election

Italian anti-immigrant leader Matteo Salvini was disappointed on Monday at his party's result in general elections but pledged to work with Giorgia Meloni, who triumphed, to form a government.

Doubts rise over 'loose cannon' Salvini after Italy's election

Whether Salvini would keep his word – or survive politically long enough to do so – was not clear, after his anti-immigrant League party dropped below the 10 percent threshold at Sunday’s vote.

This was a sharp decrease after the party swept to office with 17 percent of the vote in 2018 – since when it has been eclipsed by Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

EXPLAINED: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

A glum Salvini, who has clashed with Meloni on a range of policies, not least her stance on Russia and the war in Ukraine, told reporters that winning just nine percent had been a blow.

It was “not a number I wanted or worked for”, he said.

Salvini added that he had “gone to bed fairly pissed off but woke up ready to go” and was now “looking on the bright side”.

Meloni “was good. We will work together for a long time”, he promised.

Leader of Italy's liberal-conservative party Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Italy's conservative party Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni and leader of Italy's far-right League party, Matteo Salvini acknowledge supporters at the end of a joint rally against the government on October 19, 2019 in Rome.

Italy’s right-wing coalition, consisting of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Salvini’s League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, has promised to slash taxes and put ‘Italians first’. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

The League may now have to battle to ensure its priorities are not sidelined in Meloni’s government programme, analysts said.

And while ex-interior minister Salvini has repeatedly said he wants his former job back, it is looking increasingly unlikely to happen.

“It won’t be an easy relationship. It’s likely that (Salvini) will be given a more marginal role in the government than he wants,” Sofia Ventura, political sciences professor at Bologna University, told the foreign press association in Rome.

“The result… throws into question Matteo Salvini’s leadership” of his own party, she said, adding that there were those within the League who thought they would be better off without the “loose cannon”.

READ ALSO: Meloni, Salvini, Berlusconi: The key figures in Italy’s likely new government

He said Meloni had benefited from being the only leader to stay outside the coalition formed by Prime Minister Mario Draghi in February 2021.

For the League, being part of that administration “was not easy”, he said, but insisted “I would do it again.”

‘Dangerous when cornered’

Meloni secured around 26 percent of the vote in Sunday’s poll, putting her on course to become the first woman to serve as Italian prime minister.

She campaigned as part of a coalition including Salvini’s League and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which won around eight percent.

Italian politics is notoriously unstable, with nearly 70 governments since 1946, and there were concerns disagreements with Salvini may precipitate a fresh crisis.

Lorenzo Pregliasco, co-founder of the YouTrend polling site, said Italian party leaders proved “dangerous” when they felt cornered.

The League head “might not create any problems in the short term” but “watch out for the Salvini factor, if he survives politically as a leader”.

Salvini however said that after years of unwieldy coalitions, Italy finally had “a government chosen by its citizens, with a clear majority” in both houses of parliament.

And he hoped it could “go for at least five years straight, without changes, without upheavals, focusing on things to do”.

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