ROME (AP) — The Italian Senate was voting along party lines Wednesday to allow former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to be prosecuted — as he demands to be — for allegedly holding migrants hostage for days aboard a coast guard ship instead of letting them immediately disembark in Sicily last summer.
Salvini, a senator, says lifting his immunity and being on trial for alleged kidnapping is tantamount to defending Italy from illegal migrants, who the opposition populist leader blames for crime and for taking away jobs from Italians.
The result of the Senate vote is expected on Wednesday evening. With Salvini's party and allies in the opposition, the motion could pass, leaving him open for trial. Any conviction could bring a prison sentence ranging from six months to 15 years.
"I want to be proud of what I did, with my head held high," Salvini told reporters while senators debated his fate. "Our constitution says that protecting our homeland is a holy duty for Italian citizens."
The results of electronic voting weren't immediately announced since senators have the opportunity later in the day to announce their votes out loud. But based on party lines laid out during the pre-vote debate, the Senate decided in favor of letting Salvini face prosecution.
Italy's Sky TG24 channel said that based on its count of senators' intentions, an opposition move to prevent prosecution fell short by a handful of votes.
Last month, fellow senators from Salvini's right-wing League party, granting their leader's wishes, voted in a Senate commission in favor of lifting the immunity. That paved the way for Wednesday's vote in the entire Senate.
Any criminal case against Salvini could derail his ambitions to soon become Italy's premier and return his euro-skeptic populist party back to power.
Prosecutors in Sicily had investigated Salvini for alleged kidnapping for keeping the 131 rescued migrants for six days aboard the Gregoretti, an Italian coast guard vessel, in July 2019. Several such standoffs played out in the Mediterranean Sea while Salvini waged a crackdown on migrant rescue ships as interior minister and deputy premier in Premier Giuseppe Conte's first government.
Eventually, the prosecutors shelved the case. But another judicial body, the Tribunal of Ministers, decided to proceed.
Salvini's League is now in the opposition after he pulled his party out of Conte's government in August in a failed bid for an early election.
Coming to Salvini's defense in the Senate debate Wednesday was a fellow opposition senator from ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's center-right party.
"Italians are on the side of Salvini" for trying to stop illegal immigration, Sen. Daniela Santanche said.
Opinion surveys have tagged Salvini as one of Italy's most popular leaders.
League Sen. Erika Stefani insisted Conte's government had facilitated Salvini's crackdown on migrants rescued from Libya-based trafficker's boats.
But Conte, in his second mandate as premier, has countered that he played no determinant role in keeping the migrants aboard the Gregoretti. The migrants had been transferred to the Italian coast guard vessel after some of them were rescued by a cargo boat, while others had been plucked to safety from their unseaworthy boat by an Italian border patrol vessel.
An opposition senator, Emma Bonino, from the tiny More Europe party, mocked Salvini's arguments that he was protecting Italians from danger.
"Was Italy at risk of being invaded by an Italian military ship? Was State security threatened by Italian sailors and by shipwrecked foreigners who were asking to disembark?" Bonino said.
Some senators in Salvini's party had tried in vain to dissuade him from insisting that his immunity be lifted, among them Giulia Bongiorno, one of Italy's most prominent criminal defense lawyers.
By insisting last month on shedding his parliamentary immunity, Salvini had gambled he'd win sympathy votes for the League, which was trying to break a decades-long hold by the left in a Jan. 26 regional election in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna. But the gamble backfired, at least in the short run, with his party failing to pull off victory.
The Senate immunity commission later this month will mull whether to waive Salvini's immunity in another case, involving refusal to let around 100 migrants disembark from the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms. That standoff ended after 19 days when Sicilian prosecutors ordered the migrants' evacuation to land from the ship.
Last March, while Salvini was still interior minister and his party in government, the Senate immunity commission voted against lifting his immunity in still another case involving migrants held aboard a different Italian coast guard vessel.
By FRANCES D'EMILIO Associated Press