Italian Senate votes to lift right-wing leader's immunity

ROME (AP) — The Italian Senate voted by a large margin Wednesday to allow the prosecution of right-wing opposition leader Matteo Salvini for making 131 rescued migrants to remain on a coast guard vessel for days when he was Italy's interior minister.

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Salvini's fellow senators let stand a Senate commission's vote to lift his immunity as a lawmaker so Italy's Tribunal of Ministers can decide if he effectively held the migrants hostage last summer.

The Senate vote fell 84 short of the number needed to overturn its commission's decision on Salvini's immunity last month. Salvini insisted during Wednesday's pre-vote debate that he would be proud to stand trial for defending Italy's borders, but senators from his anti-migrant League skipped the vote.

Once the tally was announced, he immediately compared himself to impeached U.S. President Donald Trump, who has called the investigations during his presidency as the work of Democratic opponents and vindictive political enemies on the left.

“I, like Trump?'' Salvini tweeted. ”He has a few more billions and a few more years, but it's a bad little habit of the left, going around in the world, to try to win by judicial means."

As interior minister, Salvini launched a crackdown on unauthorized migration, blaming migrants for crime and other problems. His policies, which included denying migrant rescue ships access to Italian ports, brought his euroskeptic League party support at home and criticism abroad.

"I want to be proud of what I did, with my head held high,” Salvini told reporters as the Senate debated his fate earlier Wednesday. He added: “Our Constitution says that protecting our homeland is a holy duty for Italian citizens.”

Politicians from Premier Giuseppe Conte's ruling coalition have contended Salvini wants to boost his popularity among voters by casting himself as a martyr.

Opinion surveys have pegged Salvini as one of Italy's most popular leaders. However, a trial before the Tribunal of Ministers could derail his ambitions to put the League back in power and to become Italy's premier; conviction carries a prison sentence of six months to 15 years.

Senators from Salvini’s party on a Senate commission granted their leader's wishes and voted last month in favor of lifting his immunity, paving the way for Wednesday's debate and vote by the full Senate.

Salvini professed confidence in the “neutrality” of magistrates “because I believe that what I have done was in the interest of the Italian people.”

Prosecutors in Sicily investigated Salvini for alleged kidnapping for keeping 131 rescued migrants aboard an Italian coast guard vessel for six days last summer. Similar standoffs played out in the Mediterranean Sea during the anti-immigration stance Salvini took as interior minister.

An even more dramatic case will come before the Senate's immunity commission later this month. That one involves Salvini's refusal to let around 100 migrants disembark from the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms for three weeks. That standoff ended when Sicilian prosecutors ordered the evacuation of the migrants from the ship to land.

In March 2019, when 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.

In the case pondered by the Senate on Wednesday, migrants had been transferred to the Italian coast guard vessel after some of them were rescued by a cargo boat, while others were taken from their unseaworthy boat by an Italian border patrol vessel. Libya-based human traffickers launch boats crowded with Europe-bound migrants.

Sicilian prosecutors eventually shelved the case, but another judicial body decided to proceed. The Tribunal of Ministers handles cases involving alleged misdeeds government ministers performed while carrying out their official duties.

Curiously, twice in the past decade, that same tribunal absolved previous interior ministers of wrongdoing in the cases involving migrants.

Salvini's League is now in the opposition after he pulled his party out of Premier Giuseppe Conte's first government in August in a failed bid for an early election.

By insisting last month on shedding his parliamentary immunity, Salvini 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.

Supporting Salvini in the Senate debate Wednesday was a fellow opposition senator from ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party.

"Italians are on the side of Salvini" for trying to stop illegal immigration, Sen. Daniela Santanche said. A tax fraud case cost Berlusconi his own Senate seat once, and the media mogul has contended that the left-leaning magistrates use their powers to try to ruin careers of conservative politicians.

In the debate, another 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.