Salvini did ‘useful service’ for Italy, he tells court in migrant trialFri, 12 Jan 2024 11:54:51 GMT

A defiant Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, defended his hard line against illegal migration in court on Friday, saying he had done a “useful service” in blocking migrants from disembarking at an Italian port in 2019. Salvini, the head of the far-right League party and a partner in current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s coalition, denies charges of deprivation of liberty and abuse of office over the incident in August 2019, when he was part of another government. “What I did I did in full consciousness, I’m not inclined to offload my responsibility onto others. I believe I’ve done a useful service for the country,” Salvini told the court in Palermo, Sicily, in a spontaneous declaration that lasted an hour.Salvini has been on trial here since October 2021, accused of using his then-position as interior minister to detain 147 migrants at sea, refusing to let them disembark from a rescue ship operated by Spanish non-governmental organisation Open Arms. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted.A hardline populist known for an “Italians first” policy, 50-year-old Salvini has repeatedly used attacks against illegal immigration to boost his political capital.In 2019, serving in a coalition government led by Giuseppe Conte, he implemented a “closed ports” policy, under which Italy refused entry to charity ships that rescue migrants making the often deadly journey across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe.Then and now, Salvini claims he was protecting Italy with his security law, casting it as a tough measure against traffickers who organise the frequently overcrowded boats from North Africa.In court Friday, Salvini read from a series of official emails and documents, seeking to demonstrate how the entire Italian government at the time, including Conte, was behind the migration policy — and the decision to block the rescue vessel operated by Open Arms.Salvini claimed his policy delivered “results as never achieved before or since, not only in terms of fighting human trafficking but above all in terms of lives saved”, he said.Migrant landings fell by 90 percent under the policy, introduced while Salvini was minister between mid-2018 and mid-2019, while migrant deaths fell by half, he told the court.Interior ministry figures show some 120,000 migrants arrived on Italy’s shores in 2017, around 23,400 in 2018 and 11,500 in 2019.Data from the UN’s migration agency shows that 2,337 migrants died or went missing the entire Mediterranean in 2018 — not just in the waters off Italy — compared to 1,885 in 2019, 1,449 in 2020, and 2,048 in 2021.- ‘No legal basis’ -The blockade of the ship lasted nearly three weeks before the migrants were finally allowed to disembark on the tiny island of Lampedusa following a court order.Members of Open Arms have testified that the migrants’ physical and mental wellbeing reached a crisis point, with dire sanitary conditions onboard including a scabies outbreak.Passengers became so desperate that some of them jumped into the water in a stand-off that made global headlines and drew condemnation from humanitarian groups.The incident took place at a time of political crisis in Rome, after Salvini pulled out of the government in an attempt to trigger new elections he hoped would put his League party in the driving seat.Conte instead formed a new coalition, and in 2020 the Senate voted to strip Salvini of his parliamentary immunity, paving the way for him to face trial for the Open Arms stand-off and another similar case.The other trial — in which Salvini was accused of refusing to allow 116 migrants to disembark from the Italian Gregoretti coastguard boat in July 2019 — was thrown out by a court in Catania in 2021.Conte has testified in the current trial that he called for the evacuation of unaccompanied minors from the Open Arms ship. The ex-premier said he tried to “exercise moral suasion” with Salvini, saying he considered that “the decision to keep them on board had no legal basis”. The defence is expected to begin its case next month. Meloni, leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, has also taken a tough line on illegal migration.Her coalition has limited the actions of charity ships by making them perform one rescue at a time and assigning them a port to disembark often on the other side of Italy.Last year more than 157,000 migrants landed on Italy’s shores, up from 105,000 in 2022, interior ministry figures show.