PALERMO: Italy's former interior minister and far-right leader Matteo Salvini went on trial Saturday for allegedly illegally blocking over 100 migrants in dire sanitary conditions from disembarking from a rescue ship.
Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party who is known for an "Italians first" policy, is charged with kidnapping and abuse of office for using his position as interior minister to detain the 147 migrants at sea in August 2019, reports AFP.
The hearing, which came a month after the trial was first postponed, was largely procedural and lasted less than three hours before Judge Roberto Murgia set the next hearing for December 17. If convicted, Salvini could face a maximum of 15 years in prison.
He has said the decision was not his alone, but agreed by the government, including by the then-prime minister, Giuseppe Conte. Prosecutors have asked that the witness list include Conte, as well as Italy's current Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.
Judge Murgia said US actor Richard Gere would be allowed to take the stand as a witness, as requested by civil party Open Arms, the Spanish charity that operated the rescue vessel.
The actor had boarded the ship in solidarity with the migrants before it docked at the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
Prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi had earlier told the court the actor's presence was not required as it would create "spectacle" and there were more qualified witnesses.
"This is the courtroom of the Palermo prison. The trial wanted by the left and by the fans of illegal immigration begins: how much will it cost the Italian citizens?" he tweeted.
Ahead of the hearing, Open Arms' founder and director Oscar Camps said the trial was not politically motivated.
"Saving people isn't a crime, but an obligation not only by captains but by the entire state," Camps told journalists.
The beginning of the trial came as 406 migrants rescued in various operations off the coast of Libya by the German charity ship Sea Watch 3 arrived at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo to be disembarked.
In the 2019 Open Arms case, the migrants were finally allowed to leave the vessel after six days, following an order by the prosecutor's office.
A subsequent onboard inspection revealed serious overcrowding and dire sanitary conditions.
Salvini has staunchly defended himself, saying he was protecting the country with his "closed ports" policy, which aimed to stop people attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Italy.
Italy's Senate voted last year to strip Salvini of his parliamentary immunity, paving the way for the trial.
A related case in which Salvini was accused of blocking other migrants at sea on an Italian coastguard boat was thrown out by a court in Catania earlier this year.
Salvini's League takes a hard line on migrants, arguing that Italy bears an unfair burden as the first point of entry into Europe for those arriving from northern Africa.
When he blocked the ships, Salvini was part of a coalition government and held the positions of interior minister and deputy prime minister.