Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is under formal investigation for "kidnapping" after he refused to allow illegal migrants to disembark from a ship at a Sicilian port. The investigation, a political move aimed at blunting the government's hardline stance on illegal immigration, has threatened to plunge Italy into a constitutional crisis over the separation of powers.
Sicilian Prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio said that the investigation into Salvini, the head of the anti-immigration League party, would focus on "kidnapping, illegal arrest and the abuse of power."
"If he wants to interrogate me or even arrest me because I defend the borders and security of my country, I am proud and I look forward to it with open arms. Being investigated for defending the rights of Italians is a disgrace."
Salvini added that we could not be "cowed" and that he would not reserve his right to immunity from prosecution: "I only did my job as minister and I am ready to do it again."
The investigation was initiated after Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister, prevented 150 mostly Eritrean migrants from leaving the Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti unless other European Union member states agreed to take some of them in.
On August 15, the Diciotti rescued approximately 190 migrants from the Mediterranean Sea, and on August 20, the ship docked in Catania, Sicily. Roughly 30 unaccompanied minors were allowed to disembark, and subsequently another 13 women and men were allowed to leave the ship for medical reasons.
The Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti, which docked in Sicily with 190 migrants on August 20. (Image source: ARPAT/Wikimedia Commons)
Salvini refused to allow the remaining passengers to disembark, arguing that other EU member states should share the burden of mass migration. More than 600,000 migrants arrived in Italy over the past four years. Under EU rules — known as the Dublin Regulation — migrants must seek asylum in their country of arrival, which, for reasons of geography, places an inordinate burden on Italy.
On August 22, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio tweeted:
"Italy is no longer the refugee camp of Europe. On my orders, no one disembarks from the Diciotti."
On August 23, Di Maio threatened to withhold Italian payments to the European Union if a top-level EU meeting in Brussels scheduled for August 24 failed to find a long-term solution to the issue of migrant rescues. In an interview on Italian TV, which he also posted on his Facebook account, Di Maio said:
"If tomorrow nothing comes out of the European Commission meeting, if they decide nothing regarding the Diciotti and the redistribution of the migrants, the whole Five Star Movement [Di Maio's party] and I will no longer be prepared to give €20 billion euros ($23 billion) to the European Union every year."
"Today the European Union has decided to turn its back on Italy once again. At this point, Italy must take unilateral measures. We are ready to cut the funds we give to the European Union. They want €20 billion paid by Italian citizens? Let them demonstrate that they deserve it by taking charge of a problem that we can no longer tackle alone. The borders of Italy are the borders of Europe."
European Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein responded:
"Let's not engage in finger-pointing. Unconstructive comments, let alone threats, are not helpful and they will not get us any closer to a solution. The EU is a community of rules and it operates on the basis of rules, not threats."
In a subsequent interview with the public broadcaster RAI, De Maio said:
"The EU was born of principles like solidarity. If it is not capable of redistributing 170 people, it has serious problems with its founding principles."
On August 26, the Italian government announced that the remaining 150 migrants would be allowed to disembark after a deal was struck with the Roman Catholic Church, Albania and Ireland. Under the agreement, Italian bishops pledged to take most of the migrants under their care. The migrants will go to a Catholic center at Rocca di Papa near Rome. Albania, which is not an EU member, and Ireland, which is an EU member, would each take 20 people.
Speaking to League supporters, Salvini said:
"Do you know where some of the migrants will end up as they disembark in the next few hours? In a miraculous result, unseen for the last 20 years, some of the migrants will go to Albania.
"In this instance, the Albanian government showed to be better than the French government.
"I say thank you to Albania and shame on you to France as well as all of the others that couldn't be bothered to care.
"A lot of talk but very little action from them."
The former Mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, denounced the investigation into Salvini as unconstitutional:
"As Secretary of the National Movement for Sovereignty, I have asked our legal department to verify the possibility of denouncing Prosecutor Patronaggio pursuant to Article 294 of the Penal Code, which sanctions 'attacks against political rights of the citizens.' Why such a move? This article states: 'Anyone who violates, threatens or deceives completely or partially and prevents the exercise of a political right is punished with imprisonment from one to five years in application of Articles 48 and 49 of the Constitution."
"The investigation notice sent to Salvini could in fact be seen as a direct attempt to prevent a minister from carrying out his political activity in accordance with the vote expressed by the majority of Italians on the basis of precise electoral commitments."
Alemanno added that the national interest is not to suffer "the invasion of illegal immigrants in the complete indifference of Europe." This is why "the courageous and difficult choices of Salvini," which are "connected to these objectives," are the consequence of an "explicit mandate given by the voters in the exercise of their political rights." Therefore, Alemanno said, Salvini must not be prosecuted.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, an Italian, said that it was unwise criminally to prosecute a policy like Salvini's hardline stance on immigration:
"You cannot try a political stance. In the end, Salvini will be acquitted by the ministerial court and then it becomes only a propaganda clash that does not solve the real problem: neither the immigration problem nor the that of the separation of powers."
Former President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies Pier Ferdinando Casini said that the investigation was a purely political move:
"The Public Prosecutor of Agrigento [Sicily], Luigi Patronaggio, yesterday kicked off the campaign for the European elections [to be held in May 2019]. This has happened and will always happen every time the policies of politics and justice are confused."
Accusations that Patronaggio's investigation into Salvini is motivated by politics appears to be confirmed by a September 2017 interview with La Stampa, in which the prosecutor shared Salvini's position on illegal immigration:
"The reasons why migrants arrive in Italy may not only be linked to economic needs. There are people who do not want to be identified, people already expelled from Italy in the past or just released with amnesty from Tunisian prisons or maybe that took part in the 2011 riots [Tunisian Revolution in January 2011].
"Among them there may also be people linked to international terrorism, which is why I think we are facing a dangerous immigration."
Opinion polls show that Salvini's anti-immigration stance has boosted his League party's approval rating to around 30% — more than a 10 point jump from its showing in the March 2018 election — and is now level with the Five Star Movement with which it has governed Italy since early June.
Almost 60% of Italians favor closing the country's ports to migrant ships, according to the polling firm, Ipsos Italia, in a recent survey published by Corriere della Sera.