Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s right-wing league party, must face charges of kidnapping because of his decision to prevent more than 100 immigrants from landing in the country in 2019, according to a judge on Saturday.
Salvini, who was interior minister at the time, left the migrants stranded at sea until prosecutors ordered the seizure of the ship and the evacuation of the people on board.
The trial is set to begin on September 15 in the Sicilian capital, Palermo.
Salvini, who has built much of his political fortune on an anti-immigration campaign, could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted at the end of a crooked, three-step legal process.
A final conviction could stop him from the government.
“I will try with my head held high, in your name as well as mine. Italy first always,” Salvini tweeted immediately after the decision. “Defending our country is a citizen’s sacred duty … that’s what I’m being tried for.”
During his 14 months as interior minister, Salvini stopped several boats from ending up in Italy in an attempt to stop migrant flows and regularly accused the charities that ran them to effectively encourage human trafficking.
Proactiva Open Arms, the Spanish non-governmental organization that operated migrant lifeboats at the heart of the case, welcomed the judge’s decision.
“Violating a fundamental right such as protecting people at sea for the sake of political propaganda is shameful,” said founder Oscar Camps, adding that the trial would be “an opportunity to assess a period of European history.”
Salvini withdrew the league from the coalition government in the summer of 2019 in a failed attempt to trigger an election when his party rose high in the polls.
The union, now part of Mario Draghi’s two-month-old national unity government, has lost more than 10 points of vote support but is still the most popular party in Italy at around 23%, according to most opinion polls.