ROME (AP) — The Italian Senate on Wednesday voted to allow the prosecution of right-wing opposition leader Matteo Salvini for forcing migrants to stay days aboard a rescue ship when he was Italy’s interior minister.
By a wide margin, Salvini’s fellow senators voted to lift his immunity as a lawmaker so Italy’s Tribunal of Ministers can decide if he effectively held 131 migrants hostage aboard an Italian coast guard vessel for several days in July 2019.
The vote fell 84 short of the number needed to overturn a Senate commission’s decision last month to lift Salvini’s immunity. Salvini insisted during the pre-vote debate that he would be proud to stand trial for defending Italy’s borders, but senators from his anti-migrant League skipped the vote.
“I want to be proud of what I did, with my head held high,” Salvini told reporters while fellow senators debated his fate. “Our constitution says that protecting our homeland is a holy duty for Italian citizens.”
As interior minister, Salvini launched a crackdown on unauthorized migration, blaming migrants for crime and other problems. His policies, which included denying migrant rescue ships access to Italian ports, brought his euroskeptic League party support at home and criticism abroad.
Opinion surveys have pegged Salvini as one of Italy’s most popular leaders. However, a trial before the Tribunal of Ministers could derail his ambitions to put the League back in power and to become Italy’s premier; conviction carries a prison sentence of six months to 15 years. He professed confidence in the “neutrality” of magistrates “because I believe that what I have done was in the interest of the Italian people.”
Senators from Salvini’s party on a Senate commission granted their leader’s wishes and voted last month in favor of lifting his immunity, paving the way for Wednesday’s debate and vote by the full Senate.
Politicians from Premier Giuseppe Conte’s ruling coalition have contended Salvini wants to boost his popularity among voters by seeming to be a martyr.