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CRIME

Italy’s former interior minister Salvini stands trial for migrant kidnapping

Italy's former interior minister and far-right leader Matteo Salvini went on trial on Saturday for allegedly illegally blocking 147 rescued migrants from disembarking from a rescue ship and holding them in dire conditions.

Salvini stands trial on migrant kidnapping charges.
Salvini stands trial on migrant kidnapping charges.. Photo by PEDRO ROCHA / AFP

Salvini attended the opening hearing in Sicily’s Palermo, which came a month after it was first postponed.

The hearing was expected to be largely procedural, with Judge Roberto Murgia expected to decide on the admissibility of witness lists sought by both sides.

Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party who is known for an “Italians first” policy, is charged with kidnapping and abuse of office for using his position as interior minister to detain the 147 migrants at sea in August 2019.

READ ALSO: Italian mayor who helped migrants gets 13-year prison sentence

On the opening day of trial in Palermo, prosecutors asked that they be allowed to question Salvini, who was present in court, on the stand.

The hearing, which came a month after the trial was first postponed, was largely procedural and lasted less than three hours before Judge Roberto Murgia set the next hearing for December 17th.

If convicted, Salvini could face a maximum of 15 years in prison.

The 48-year-old has said that the decision was not his alone, but agreed by the government, including by the then-prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.

Prosecutors have asked that the witness list include Conte, as well as Italy’s current Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.

Judge Murgia said US actor Richard Gere would be allowed to take the stand as a witness, as requested by civil party Open Arms, the Spanish charity that operated the rescue vessel.

The actor had boarded the ship in solidarity with the migrants before it docked at the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.

Prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi had earlier told the court the actor’s presence was not required as it would create “spectacle” and there were more qualified witnesses.

Salvini tweeted a photo of himself inside the courtroom, standing in front one of the cells used for some defendants.

“This is the courtroom of the Palermo prison. The trial wanted by the left and by the fans of illegal immigration begins: how much will it cost the Italian citizens?” he tweeted.

Outside the courtroom, the founder and director of the Spanish charity Open Arms that operated the rescue ship said the trial was not politically motivated.

“Saving people isn’t a crime, but an obligation not only by captains but by the entire state,” Oscar Camps told journalists.

READ ALSO: ‘More rights and more humanity’: Italy overhauls anti-immigration security decree

The beginning of the trial came as 406 migrants rescued in various operations off the coast of Libya by the German charity ship Sea Watch 3 arrived at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo to be disembarked.

Salvini’s claim to the ‘closed ports’ policy

In the 2019 Open Arms case, migrants were finally allowed to leave the vessel after six days, following an order by the prosecutor’s office. A subsequent onboard inspection revealed serious overcrowding and dire sanitary conditions.

Salvini has staunchly defended himself, saying he was protecting the country with his “closed ports” policy, which aimed to stop people attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Italy.

Italy’s Senate voted last year to strip Salvini of his parliamentary immunity, paving the way for the trial.

A related case in which Salvini, 48, was accused of blocking other migrants at sea on an Italian coastguard boat was thrown out by a court in Catania earlier this year.

According to prosecutor Andrea Bonomo, Salvini “did not breach any international convention” in his treatment of the migrants, and acted with the support of his government, ANSA news agency reported.

On Friday evening before Saturday’s court hearing in Palermo, Salvini tweeted that migrant arrivals continue in Italy, adding, “we need to block the landings”.

Salvini’s League takes a hard line on migrants, arguing that Italy bears an unfair burden as the first point of entry into Europe for those arriving from northern Africa.

When he blocked the ships, Salvini was part of a coalition government and held the positions of interior minister and deputy prime minister.

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CRIME

Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

Thirty years ago, the Sicilian mafia killed judge Giovanni Falcone with a bomb so powerful it was registered by experts monitoring volcanic tremors from Etna on the other side of the island.

Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

The explosion, which ripped through a stretch of motorway near Palermo at 5.56 pm on May 23rd 1992, sent shockwaves across Italy, but also signalled the start of the mafia’s decline.

Anti-mafia prosecuting magistrate Falcone, his wife, and three members of his police escort were killed.

The mob used a skateboard to place a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) charge of TNT and ammonium nitrate in a tunnel under the motorway which linked the airport to the centre of Palermo.

Falcone, driving a white Fiat Croma, was returning from Rome for the weekend.

At a look-out point on the hill above, a mobster nicknamed “The Pig” pressed the remote control button as the judge’s three-car convoy passed.

The blast ripped through the asphalt, shredding bodies and metal, and flinging the lead car several hundred metres.

The three policemen on board were killed instantly.

READ ALSO: Could body found on Italy’s Mount Etna help solve long-standing mafia mystery?

Falcone, whose wife was sitting beside him, had slowed seconds before the explosion and the car slammed into a concrete guard rail.

His chauffeur, who was sitting in the back, survived, as did the three agents in the convoy’s rear.

A “garden of memory” now stands on the site of the attack. Oil from olive trees that grow there is used by Sicilian churches for anointing children during baptisms and confirmations.

‘Mafia massacre’

Falcone posed a real threat to the Cosa Nostra, an organised crime group made famous by “The Godfather” trilogy and which boasted access to the highest levels of Italian power.

It was he who gathered evidence from the first mafia informants for a groundbreaking trial in which hundreds of mobsters were convicted in 1987.

And at the time of the attack, he headed the justice ministry’s criminal affairs department in Rome and was working on a package of anti-mafia laws.

His murder woke the nation up. The Repubblica daily attacked the “mafia massacre” in its headline the next day, with a photo of the famous moustachioed magistrate, while thousands of people in Palermo protested in the streets.

All eyes turned to fellow anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, Falcone’s close friend and colleague, who gave an interview at the start of July saying the “extreme danger” he was in would not stop him doing his job.

On July 19th, just 57 days after his friend, Borsellino was also killed in a car bomb attack, along with five members of his escort. Only his driver survived.

Amid national outrage, the state threw everything it had at hunting down Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore (Toto) Riina, who was involved in dozens of murders during a reign of terror lasting over 20 years.

Riina was arrested on January 15th, 1993, in a car in Palermo.

The truth?

The murders of Falcone and Borsellino “in the long term turned out to be a very bad business for Cosa Nostra, whose management team was decapitated by arrests and informants’ confessions”, Vincenzo Ceruso, author of several books on the mafia, told AFP.

Dozens of people have been convicted for their roles in the assassinations.

But Roberto di Bella, now an anti-mafia judge at the Catania juvenile court in Sicily, said that while “the majority of the perpetrators have been tried and convicted”, there remained “a part that is still not clear”.

Survivors insist there are still bits of the puzzle missing and point to Falcone’s belief there could be “possible points of convergence between the leaders of Cosa Nostra and the shadowy centres of power”.

“We still don’t have the truth about who really ordered the murder of Giovanni Falcone, because I don’t believe that ignorant people like Toto Riina could have organised an attack as sophisticated as that in Capaci,” Angelo Corbo, one of the surviving bodyguards, said in a documentary.

He said he was not alone in believing there were “men in suits and ties” among the mobsters.

However, an investigation into possible “hidden orchestrators” of the Capaci attack was thrown out in 2013.

“There is no evidence of the existence of external backers. There is no doubt that these are mafia acts,” author Ceruso said.

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