Former Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini has appeared in court in the Sicilian capital Palermo for the opening hearing in the trial over his 2019 role in preventing the Open Arms migrant rescue ship from docking at an Italian port.
The prosecution accuses Salvini of deprivation of liberty and abuse of authority after he prevented the Spanish aid organisation’s ship from entering a port in August 2019 during his time as minister.
The head of the populist Lega party could face 15 years in prison if convicted.
Salvini was interior minister from June 2018 to September 2019 in the first cabinet of ex-prime minister Giuseppe Conte.
On the opening day, the court dealt mainly with the issue of who would be called to testify at the trial.
Besides Conte, it will question former government adviser Luciana Lamorgese, who is now the interior minister, as well as Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who was minister for labour and social policy at the time, in the course of the trial, the ANSA and Adnkronos news agencies reported on Saturday.
Salvini pursued what was considered a harsh anti-migration line.
In August 2019, the Open Arms vessel had rescued more than 160 people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea over the course of three interventions starting on August 1, according to information supplied by the aid organisation about its 65th mission.
Nine days later, US actor Richard Gere had brought supplies onto the ship, together with other helpers.
Time and again, the authorities relocated people from the ship for medical reasons.
According to the reports, Gere will also be called to testify, the court decided, after the lawyer representing Open Arms had pressed for him to be admitted as a witness.
The Open Arms was moored off Lampedusa from around mid-August but was not allowed to dock there.
The sanitary situation and tension on board came to a head.
Desperate people kept jumping into the water in an attempt to swim ashore.
In the end, the public prosecutor’s office arranged for the Open Arms to be impounded following an inspection on board, which meant that it could dock with the remaining migrants.
Salvini repeatedly stressed that his actions had been in defence of Italy and in the government’s interest.
The trial formally began on September 15 but was immediately postponed, as had been expected, to October 23.
The next hearing was scheduled for December 17, according to Open Arms.