CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — A high-stakes legal and political drama is unfolding at the Sicilian port of Catania, where about 150 asylum-seekers rescued from the Mediterranean Sea were being kept aboard an Italian coast guard vessel on Friday — the fifth day they were blocked from setting foot in Italy.
Human rights lawyers charged that Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a popular but divisive hardline anti-immigrant politician, was breaking Italian and international laws by ordering the asylum-seekers kept aboard the vessel, the Diciotti.
Salvini has vowed to stop people fleeing poverty and war in Africa and Asia from entering Italy. He’s also promised to deport a half million migrants from Italy. Since taking office in June, he has blocked humanitarian ships from bringing people rescued from the sea to Italy.
The Diciotti case, though, is forcing Europe into uncharted legal waters, and many legal experts say the Italian government is on the wrong side of the law.
“This is new,” said Gianluca Vitale, an attorney who handles immigration cases, in a telephone interview. “The democratic system is in play.”
He called the case a critical legal test.
“There are no uncertainties as far as the law is concerned,” Vitale said. “As far as I am concerned, inhumane treatment is happening right now.”
Salvini is not backing down. He even threatened to send the immigrants aboard the Diciotti back to Libya, a country where immigrants are known to be tortured and badly mistreated.
Humanitarian organizations warned that Salvini’s hardline policy against immigrants could lead to more deaths at sea by slowing rescue operations. More than 1,500 people have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Salvini’s stances, though, are popular with many Italians.
Human rights attorneys say the detention aboard the vessel is a violation of the immigrants’ rights to freedom and even constitutes a form of torture. They say the detention also violates international laws protecting refugees.
Many of the immigrants aboard the Diciotti are Eritrean. Twenty-seven children were allowed off the vessel Thursday. Some of those still aboard suffer from scabies, an Italian prosecutor said.
Sicilian prosecutors said they were looking into whether any laws had been violated.
Defiantly, Salvini blasted his critics, including Italian President Sergio Mattarella. The president wants the asylum-seekers to be allowed to disembark.
“If someone wants to investigate me, go ahead and investigate me,” Mattarella said on Twitter, a medium he relies on to get his political messages out. “I’m ready to explain my reasons.”
In response to this new flashpoint on immigration, European envoys huddled Friday in Brussels to discuss what to do. Italian media reported no breakthroughs were reached.
Italy’s new government is demanding that other European nations take in immigrants aboard the vessel. Italy complains it’s been abandoned by Europe in dealing with tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean.
On Friday, Belgian and Hungarian officials said they were unwilling to take in immigrants from the Diciotti, La Repubblica newspaper reported.
The Italian government has even threatened to stop payments it makes to the EU unless it gets its way with the immigrants aboard the Diciotti.
That threat was made by Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the 5-Star Movement, an anti-establishment party that formed a coalition government with Salvini’s right-wing nationalist League party.
In an interview on an Italian radio show, Salvini said that the people picked up by the Diciotti were illegal immigrants with no right to be in Italy. He doubted they were fleeing war.
“This morning 160,000 people are waking up in Italian hotels and getting breakfast paid for by Italians,” he said, referring to thousands of asylum-seekers in Italy whose pleas for asylum are being handled by Italian authorities.
Salvini also claims that immigrants and refugees are fueling a system of human trafficking that allows smugglers to purchase weapons and drugs. He said he wants to follow the example of Australia, which has a policy of stopping immigrants from reaching Australia. Australia sends people back to where they left from or to centers outside of Australia.
“No one who is rescued in the middle of the sea is allowed to put foot on Australian soil,” Salvini said in the interview. “This is what I want to get to.”
“I’m not afraid of anything. I have a clean conscience,” he said of the potential of being charged.
Vitale, the immigration lawyer, said that Salvini may have committed an abuse of power by closing the port to the ship. He said such an authority rests with the minister of infrastructure. He also said the coast guard captain of the Diciotti may face charges for carrying out an illegal order.