Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini faces migrants trial, actor Richard Gere to testify

sbs– Italy’s former interior minister and far-right leader Matteo Salvini appeared in court for the start of his trial.

He allegedly illegally blocked over 100 migrants in dire sanitary conditions from disembarking from a rescue ship.

On the opening day of the trial in Palermo, Judge Roberto Murgia said all the witnesses submitted by the parties would be allowed to testify, including American actor Richard Gere – who made a humanitarian visit to the ship – and Italy’s former prime minister Giuseppe Conte.

Mr Salvini,┬áthe leader of the far-right League party who is known for an “Italians first” policy, is charged with kidnapping and abuse of office for using his position as interior minister to detain the 147 migrants at sea in August 2019.

The hearing was largely procedural and lasted less than three hours before Judge Murgia set the next hearing for 17 December.

Mr Salvini, who was present in court, could face a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted.

“You tell me how serious a trial is where Richard Gere will come from Hollywood to testify about my nastiness,” Mr Salvini told journalists outside the courtroom.

“I hope it lasts as short a time as possible because there are more important things to take care of.”

Salvini has said he was protecting Italy with his “closed ports” policy aimed at stopping people attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

He has claimed the decision not to allow the ship to dock was not his alone, but agreed by the government, including by then-PM Conte.

Other witnesses the court allowed to testify include Italy’s current Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.

Civil party Open Arms, the Spanish charity that operated the rescue vessel, had requested Gere as a witness, since he had boarded the ship in solidarity with the migrants before it docked at the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.

Ahead of the hearing, Mr Salvini tweeted a photo of himself inside the courtroom, standing in front one of the cells used for some defendants.

“This is the courtroom of the Palermo prison. The trial wanted by the left and by the fans of illegal immigration begins: how much will it cost the Italian citizens?” he tweeted.

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