CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – An unusual high-stakes legal and political battle is unfolding in Italy over the nation's harsh new anti-immigrant policies and whether its most prominent advocate, the far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, should face criminal charges for carrying those policies out.
In late January, a three-judge panel in Catania, a Sicilian port city, issued a ruling saying Salvini should be prosecuted for his decision to detain for several days 177 asylum-seekers rescued from the Mediterranean Sea.
The asylum-seekers, who were mostly from Eritrea, were held aboard an Italian coast guard ship, the Diciotti, while it was docked in Catania. In the meantime, Salvini demanded other European nations take in the asylum-seekers.
The judges said Salvini's decision to hold them on the vessel, sleeping on the ship's decks under the hot summer sun, was “merely political” and served no public interest.
It was one of numerous high-profile actions Salvini has taken against asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants since taking office last June. He's closed centers for asylum-seekers, ordered deportations and blocked humanitarian ships from bringing asylum-seekers to Italy's ports.
The court said Salvini abused his powers by depriving the asylum-seekers of their freedom. The judges found Salvini violated international laws that ensure people rescued from the sea are taken to a safe port and given aid. By keeping the asylum-seekers aboard the ship, Salvini made them endure harsh physical and mental conditions, the court said.
Because Salvini is a government minister, it is now up to the Italian Senate to decide whether the case should proceed. If found guilty, Salvini faces between three and 15 years in prison. He also serves as deputy prime minister.
Now enter the very turbulent politics of Italy.
Italy's government is made up two populist parties that represent very different views and electorates.
On the one side, there's Salvini's anti-immigrant pro-business League party, dominant in northern Italy. On the other, there's the anti-establishment left-leaning 5-Star Movement whose power base is in the south.
But this odd coalition is showing signs of stress as policy differences emerge and they struggle for supremacy and relevancy. This plays out against a backdrop of national anxiety, too, with Italy's economy in a recession and important regional and European elections pending.
In March elections last year, the 5-Stars picked up about 32 percent of votes and became Italy's biggest party. However since then, Salvini has surged ahead of the 5-Star Movement, according to the latest polls, boosted in large part by his crackdown on foreigners and the 46-year-old's gregarious social media personality.
With the upper hand, political analysts predict Salvini will choose to force snap elections sometime this year or early next year in order to consolidate his power and rid himself of the 5-Star Movement. He would prefer to rule in a coalition with right-leaning parties.
Amid this political turmoil is the question of Salvini's legal case with the Diciotti.
A Senate commission looking at the charges against Salvini has until Feb. 23 to vote on whether the case against Salvini should proceed.
Luca Masera, a law professor at the University of Brescia, called the case extraordinary in a paper published by an association of lawyers that defends the rights of asylum-seekers.
“This is such a rare situation,” he wrote, because “this is not a case of corruption or one in which the person being investigated can deny the facts or where the facts are up for discussion.”
Instead, the case involves the political decision by Salvini to close Italy's ports and the facts were clear, Masera said. He called the court's ruling the right one.
For his part, Salvini has blasted “left-wing judges” as overstepping their limits and interfering in politics. “We're moving ahead with our heads held high,” he said recently.
Initially, Salvini mocked the investigation into the Diciotti case and boasted that he welcomed being prosecuted. But in recent days, he has spoken out against the threat of prosecution and said he was acting “in the supreme interest of the country and within the full respect of my mandate.”
There is a possibility that members of the 5-Star Movement could vote against him, even if that risks putting the fragile governing coalition in jeopardy.
A lot is at stake for the 5-Star Movement, a party that strives to bill itself as transparent and honest, a clean break with the history of political corruption in Italy. Its leaders have said politicians facing charges should not be in public office.
Il Sole 24 Ore, an Italian newspaper, reports that the 5-Star members on the 23-member Senate commission examining the case could form a majority that votes against Salvini. If the committee approves prosecuting Salvini, then the full Senate would vote on the matter.
But the 5-Star's leader, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, has wavered and most recently defended Salvini, saying that if the interior minister is responsible for what happened with the Diciotti, “then the whole government is responsible.” The 5-Star party mostly has supported Salvini's anti-immigrant tactics.
However, other 5-Star members have said they will vote against Salvini if his case makes it to the Senate floor.
Salvini is expected to appear before the Senate commission to defend himself as early as next week.
In the meantime, he is continuing his campaign against asylum-seekers and humanitarian ships that ply the Mediterranean in search of people seeking to reach Europe's shores.
Italian media is reporting that Salvini is drafting a law that would bar humanitarian ships from entering Italian waters. This comes after a days-long confrontation between the Italian government and a German non-government vessel carrying 47 asylum-seekers.
On Thursday, Italy allowed the Sea-Watch 3 to dock in Catania, but only after it got assurances from other European nations that they would take in the asylum-seekers. Then on Friday, Italian authorities blocked the Sea-Watch from departing, claiming inspectors had found safety violations on the ship.
Italy and other European nations have sought to impede non-government rescue vessels from conducting their operations in the Mediterranean Sea, in part arguing that these vessels are encouraging people fleeing war-torn and impoverished Asian and African nations to attempt the Mediterranean crossing in the hope of being rescued by the humanitarian vessels.
The humanitarian ships argue they're saving lives by cruising the African coast in search of asylum-seekers who would otherwise be left to drown. There are European vessels in the Mediterranean that do rescues too, but their primary mission is to stop asylum-seekers from crossing.
Last year, 2,297 people drowned in the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. So far this year, 208 people have died in the crossing, according to IOM data.Follow @cainburdeau
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