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Italy's Salvini faces new trial risk for holding migrants on ship

ROME (Reuters) - A special tribunal has recommended that former Italian interior minister and far-right League party leader Matteo Salvini face trial for holding scores of migrants on board a coastguard ship docked in a port in Sicily in July.

FILE PHOTO: Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini addresses a news conference at the end of a meeting with key economic players to discuss the forthcoming 2020 budget, at Viminale Palace, Rome, Italy, July 15 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

In a court document seen by Reuters, Sicilian magistrates ask parliament for authorisation to continue their investigation into Salvini for alleged kidnapping, saying he abused his powers and “deprived 131 migrants of personal liberty”.

In July Salvini, then interior minister, ordered the migrants, including children, remain on board the Italian coastguard ship Gregoretti until other European countries agreed to take most of them in.

“Investigated because I defended the security, the borders and the dignity of my country, unbelievable,” the anti-migrant leader said in a statement. He called the investigation “shameful”.

During his 14 months at the interior ministry, Salvini staked his credibility on a pledge to halt migrant flows, blocking Italian ports to rescue ships and threatening the charities operating them with fines.

The investigation echoes another case earlier this year.

In February, when the League was in government with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, parliament rejected a magistrates’ request to pursue a kidnapping probe into Salvini for refusing permission to disembark for some 150 migrants on a coastguard ship stranded off Sicily.

On that occasion the 5-Star, which had always criticized the practice of halting judicial proceedings against lawmakers, rescued Salvini and blocked the investigation after weeks of tension within the government.

But things have now changed. The League walked out of government in August and 5-Star have formed a new coalition with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which strongly opposes Salvini’s hard line against migrants.

The PD and other minor government parties are expected to vote to grant the authorisation, and on Wednesday 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio appeared to suggest his party will do the same.

He told state television network RAI that in the case of the Gregoretti ship Salvini had acted on his own initiative, rather than on behalf of the whole government, and said: “I hope Salvini can prove his innocence.”

The case will be examined by a 23-member upper house Senate committee. The timetable for its hearings has not yet been set.

Editing by Gavin Jones and Alex Richardson