CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – Italy's outspoken and divisive far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was granted political immunity Tuesday from prosecution over his harsh anti-immigrant policies.
A Senate commission dominated by populist parties, including a left-leaning, direct-democracy party that had vowed to not grant immunity to politicians, voted 16-6 to stop judicial proceedings against Salvini.
Salvini, a deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party, faced kidnapping charges for his decision last year to detain for several days 177 asylum-seekers rescued from the Mediterranean Sea.
But the Senate vote was preceded by another vote the day before – and this one was unusual and controversial.
On Monday, Italy's biggest party, the anti-establishment and direct-democracy party known as the 5-Star Movement, held an online referendum asking its members whether Salvini should face prosecution.
The results: 52,417 party members voted and 59 percent of them decided in favor of giving Salvini immunity.
With that result in hand, 5-Star Senate members then cast key votes to grant Salvini immunity, saying they were carrying out the will of the party.
Many critics, including some inside the party, charged that the 5-Star Movement was hypocritical. In a bid to rid corruption from Italian politics, the party’s platform says politicians charged with crimes should not be given immunity.
Paola Nugnes, a 5-Star senator, said the online vote violated party procedures and she warned it would hurt the party's image badly and cost it votes.
The 5-Star party is in a difficult place. Since forming a power-sharing government last June, the party's popularity has fallen, in part because it has not lived up to its radical promises but also because it has backed the harsh anti-immigrant policies of Salvini.
And the 5-Star Movement's politics trumped principles here. It is in a coalition government with Salvini's League party and a vote against Salvini threatened to bring the government down. That's a dangerous prospect for the 5-Stars because if elections were held, polls suggest Salvini's party would do better than the flagging 5-Star Movement.
Following Tuesday’s vote, senate members of the Democratic Party, a left-center party that was until last year Italy's dominant party, chastised the 5-Star politicians.
They shouted “shame” at a 5-Star senator and the commission chairman, Maurizio Giarrusso Gasparri, and held up deprecating signs.
One read “Democracy of the Web” and another said “Casaleggio Decides,” a reference to Casaleggio Associates, a media and consulting firm whose founder was instrumental in creating the 5-Star Movement. The firm runs the online platform used by the party to carry out its form of direct democracy, including Monday's poll.
The 5-Star Movement's use of direct democracy is often criticized as disingenuous and even a sham. Political scientists say the online votes simply echo the wishes of the party's leaders, and only give the appearance of fostering vigorous debate within the party.
Monday’s vote was no exception. The party leaders were clear where they stood prior to the online referendum: They warned that the coalition government might fall if Salvini was prosecuted.
“Democracy becomes a comedy of the absurd,” wrote Paolo Gentiloni, a former Italian prime minister, on Twitter prior to the vote. “For 5-Star Movement voters, [the vote] will become a tragedy regardless.”
On Tuesday, Gasparri had a response at hand to the Democratic Party senators berating him. Earlier that day, the parents of Matteo Renzi, a former prime minister and Democratic Party senator, were accused of fraud charges connected to bankruptcy. They were placed under home arrest.
“My father and my mother are at home in a regular way,” Gasparri quipped, according to news reports. “Other's parents are under house arrest. And then they're the ones talking about honesty. They should be ashamed for what they and their parents have done to destroy Italy.”
Francesco Silvestri, a 5-Star spokesman, defended the online vote, saying direct democracy was a “founding principle” for the party and that is what differentiates his party from others. He called on 5-Star members critical of the online vote to quit the party.
The case against Salvini stemmed from a late January ruling by a three-judge panel in Catania, a Sicilian port city.
The judges said Salvini’s decision to hold the asylum-seekers on the vessel, sleeping on the ship’s decks under the hot summer sun, was “merely political” and served no public interest. The asylum-seekers were mostly from Eritrea. As he held them aboard the vessel, Salvini demanded other European nations take them in.
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.
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