ROME (Reuters) - A special tribunal has recommended that Interior Minister Matteo Salvini face trial for refusing to let 150 migrants disembark last year from a rescue ship docked in Sicily, the far-right leader said on Thursday.
The court, which reviews investigations involving government ministers, overturned a previous recommendation by prosecutors to drop the politically charged case.
“I risk between 3 and 15 years in jail for having blocked illicit migrants from coming to Italy. I am speechless,” Salvini wrote on Twitter. “I ask the Italian people: Should I continue to be the minister, exercising my rights and duties, or should I ask this or that court to (decide) immigration policy?”
Following the court move, Italy’s upper-house Senate will now be called on to decide whether Salvini can be tried.
Salvini was placed under investigation last August for alleged abuse of power and holding people against their will after he denied permission for the Italian coastguard ship Diciotti to let a group of mainly Eritrean migrants disembark.
The migrants were eventually allowed to land, but since then Salvini has tightened the screws and is refusing to let any rescue ships into Italian ports, saying other European states should pick up the strain.
“Let me be totally clear. I will not change my position in the slightest. Boats, little boats, big boats. No one will get off the boats in Italy,” said Salvini, who is head of the League party and also serves as deputy prime minister.
His determination looks set to be tested in coming days with SeaWatch 3, a vessel run by a German humanitarian group, which is heading toward Italy in stormy seas and carrying 47 migrants picked up on Saturday off Libya.
“We’re facing a Mediterranean cyclone, a rather rare weather phenomenon with waves of 7 meters, rain and icy wind,” the group wrote on Twitter, asking for shelter.
Salvini called it “the latest provocation” and said the NGO vessel should dock in Malta, which has also repeatedly refused to let migrants disembark. His fellow deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, said the boat should head to France.
Italy has taken in more than 650,000 boat migrants since 2014, but the influx has slowed dramatically since the new government took office last June.
Salvini’s uncompromising approach has been backed by many Italians and recent opinion polls say his League party is now the most popular in the country.
However, he has faced criticism from opposition politicians and the center-left mayor of Palermo offered to let the SeaWatch migrants come to his city, the capital of Sicily.
“Palermo is an open and welcoming city and is ready to play its part in bringing this affair to a positive conclusion,” Leoluca Orlando wrote in an open letter to the skipper of the NGO boat, saying international law was on their side.
The Sea-Watch spent more than two weeks at sea over the New Year holidays with 32 migrants on board before Malta finally relented and allowed it to dock.
Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne