Matteo Salvini Will Stand Trial in Italy Migrant Ship Case

John Follain and Alberto Brambilla

(Bloomberg) -- Matteo Salvini will face trial for stopping migrants from landing in Italy, gifting the former deputy prime minister with a public platform for his anti-refugee policy after recent setbacks.

The opposition leader has built his political fortunes mostly by tapping fears of unbridled immigration. While the case may go on for years in Italy’s plodding court system and could undermine his bid for power, Salvini instructed lawmakers from his League party not to oppose the trial, in order to allow him to defend his actions.

Last July, as interior minister, he blocked a ship carrying rescued migrants from docking in a Sicilian port. Prosecutors charged him with kidnapping. Salvini says he was just applying government policy.

He also blamed other European Union countries, saying he was waiting for their decision on who would accept the 131 migrants on board the Coast Guard vessel Gregoretti.

While the League is still far ahead in national polls, Salvini lost a key vote last month and his latest gamble carries risks. Standing trial will allow him to portray himself as a victim of politically motivated persecution in the case, but a guilty verdict could hamper his chances to run for prime minister in future elections.

His League party has been losing some support and Salvini now also has to contend with the resurgence of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party, which has leapfrogged ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Calling the case politically motivated, Salvini said, “I can’t take being called a criminal anymore, there’s a limit to everything,” Ansa news agency reported. “In a democracy, justice comes from the people.”

The Gregoretti case is just one of Salvini’s growing legal concerns. Prosecutors are seeking to try him for refusing access to another migrant-carrying ship. An initial vote on this case is due Feb. 27.

(Updates throughout.)

To contact the reporters on this story: John Follain in Rome at jfollain2@bloomberg.net;Alberto Brambilla in Rome at abrambilla8@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Alessandro Speciale, Jerrold Colten

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