Italy's Salvini asks for trial, his party's lawmakers oblige

ROME (AP) —

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Italy's right-wing opposition leader Matteo Salvini dared lawmakers to lift his Senate immunity Monday so he could be tried for allegedly keeping migrants hostage for days aboard a coast guard rescue ship, and they did.

But the only Senate immunity commission members who ended up voting in favor of lifting his protection from prosecution were from his own anti-migrant League party, acting on Salvini's directive.

Nothing is definite, since the whole Senate must decide on Salvini's immunity in February.

Lawmakers from parties in the governing coalition, unwilling to make Salvini seem a martyr ahead of a crucial regional election next week, boycotted the commission vote.

That left only opposition senators among commission members. They split, 5 votes to 5, on lifting Salvini's immunity. Under commission rules that was tantamount to allowing immunity to be lifted, a matter which will ultimately be decided by the full Senate.

Governing center-left parties fear Salvini pushed to have his immunity lifted to win sympathy votes for his League in a Jan. 26 regional election, where he hopes to triumph in a left-wing stronghold.

“ If someone wants to put me on trial, that's OK,'' Salvini tweeted on Monday. ”I'll look them in the eyes, and if it costs me going to jail, I'll go with my head high."

Commission chairman Maurizio Gasparri, from the center-right opposition forces, had recommended that the members vote to keep Salvini's immunity. But the five League lawmakers did what Salvini wanted.

In the end “a political consideration prevailed" on the part of the League, Gasparri told reporters after the vote.

Salvini insists that while interior minister he acted to safeguard Italy's borders when he refused for six days to allow the coast guard ship Gregoretti bring 131 rescued migrants ashore to Sicily in July 2019. His League party blames migrants for crime and contends there's a risk some might be terrorists.

“Drug dealers, rapists, Mafiosi should end up in jail, not ministers” who defend citizens, Salvini told an election rally for the League's regional candidate..

Prosecutors in Sicily investigated Salvini for alleged kidnapping, then decided to shelve the case. But another judicial body, the Tribunal of Ministers, which has jurisdiction over the handling of alleged crimes by government officials, wants to proceed.

Coalition parties in Premier Giuseppe Conte's government last week unsuccessfully sought to have the vote delayed until after the election for the governorship of Emilia Romagna, a long-time left-wing stronghold.

If the Democrats, a main government party, lose in Sunday's vote to the right-wing League, Salvini would gain momentum to resume pressing for an early national election.

For his part, Salvini was busy campaigning in small towns in Emilia Romagna. At one of his rallies,, when he proclaimed he was ready to go to prison, some in the crowd shouted that they'd go with him. In the hours before the vote, Salvini backers had started their own campaign, with a hashtag calling for a daylong fast in solidarity for him..

As interior minister in Conte's previous government, Salvini cracked down on migrants who were rescued by the thousands in the Mediterranean Sea from human traffickers' unseaworthy boats.

Salvini has insisted that the decision to refuse to let the migrants disembark was shared both by Premier Conte and 5-Star chief Luigi Di Maio, who was the other coalition leader in the previous 5-Star-League government. That government collapsed in August after Salvini yanked support in a thwarted bid to trigger earlier elections.