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The far-right politician had faced allegations of kidnapping after refusing to let a group of migrants disembark from a ship. But his legal battles are not over yet.
The Italian Senate lifted Salvini’s immunity in August 2019, clearing the way for the charges
Matteo Salvini, the head of Italy's right-wing League party, should not stand trial on charges he kidnapped a group of migrants at sea, a judge in the Sicilian city of Catania ruled on Friday.
The case centered on an incident in July 2019, when Salvini stopped over 100 largely Sudanese migrants aboard the Gregoretti coast guard ship from disembarking for six days. During that t, there was an outbreak of scabies and a suspected case of tuberculosis.
The migrants were eventually allowed to leave the boat after Italy brokered a deal with other EU states.
The Gregoretti was not allowed to let rescued migrants disembark for six days in 2019
Salvini, who was Italy's interior minister at the time of the incident, stopped the migrants from leaving the ship under his so-called "closed ports" policy. He argued it was necessary to protect the country amid a surge of migrants arriving on Italy's shores.
Following the incident, Italy's Senate voted in 2020 to strip the politician of his parliamentary immunity, paving the way for the trial.
But prosecutors in Catania had asked the judge not to send Salvini to trial. They argued his decision did not violate international treaties and was not to be considered a kidnapping.
I joined the Ocean Viking crew in mid-February, setting sail for two weeks along the Libyan coast. As the sole journalist on board, I aimed to document how Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee conduct their rescue operations and the plight of the refugees they saved. After our time at sea, the crew and I hoped to disembark in Italy. Instead we were quarantined due to the coronavirus.
Patrolling the waters off the coast of Libya, the crew of the rescue vessel Ocean Viking is constantly on the watch for boats in distress. Operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders, the ship's mission is saving migrants trying to reach Europe, whose boats are shipwrecked or in distress. I joined the crew in mid-February as the only journalist on board.
In just one day, the Ocean Viking received distress calls to come to the aid of two boats drifting some 130 kilometers off the coast of Libya. Despite choppy waves and frantic passengers, the rescue crew managed to calm everyone down and bring them on board the rescue vessel. During the entire mission, I witnessed the crew save 274 people.
Most of the people the Ocean Viking rescues are male. During our two-week mission, we saw many from Bangladesh, Morocco, but also from sub-Saharan countries. They were risking it all to get to Europe and were extremely relieved when we the crew took them on board and said they would not have to go back to Libya.
Once on board the Ocean Viking, the refugees have time to recover from their arduous journey and reflect on their lives ahead. The people who have left their homes and risked it all, will soon be confronted with a new life in Europe. I often asked myself, what they must be thinking, what have they left behind and how they imagine their future.
I've come to admire the dedication of the crew. With representatives from more than 14 yountries, various ethnicities and religions, what unites them is their steadfast dedication to saving lives. No matter what they did in previous lives, no one is too vain to scrub the deck or clean the toilets. Take Erik Koninsberger — just two years ago the 61-year-old worked as an actor on stage and in film.
"I can't imagine working anywhere else," says Illina Angelova, the Humanitarian Affairs Officer aboard the Ocean Viking. The young Bulgarian, who is part of the rescue team that saved 274 people from almost certain drowning, is responsible for taking care of the refugees once on board. Like the other crew members, she knows the danger involved in her work, but she is convinced of its importance.
When the migrants are brought on board the ship, they are given food, water, a bag of clothing and a blanket. While I was on board the ship, the migrants stayed in this container until they could safely disembark in Italy. This simple shelter provided them protection and a safe space to recover from their journey.
After the migrants were taken ashore in Italy, I was allowed to look around their temporary living quarters. Inside the shelter, the crew had set up a boxing ring for stress relief. On the walls, those who were rescued had scribbled drawings from their homeland and messages of thanks to the Ocean Viking.
Before the rescued migrants left Ocean Viking, they signed the walls in their living container. Here, one of them from Bangladesh recorded the date he left the ship for his new life in Europe: February 23, 2020. Others offered thanks or prayers for their rescue. Where they will go from the port in Sicily is not clear.
Italian authorities have quarantined the Ocean Viking in Sicily. They fear that the refugees could have brought the coronavirus on board. Every day Dr. Stephen K. Hall from Doctors Without Borders takes our temperature and checks our health. Originally from Sacramento, California, the doctor has been a volunteer since 2013 and was previously in South Sudan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Syria.
These refugee children are from the Ivory Coast. It’s not clear where their parents are. After they were rescued by the Ocean Viking, they received toys to comfort them. But these kids - who had nothing else to hold and cuddle - were quickly disappointed. When they left the boat, Italian authorities took away the toys, out of fear they could be contaminated with the coronavirus.
After several days of weathering storms off the Italian coast, we were releaved when port authorities allowed us to dock in Pozzallo, Sicily. But because of the coronavirus, the crew and I were not able to actually disembark. We've been told we have to be quarantined for two weeks! In order to keep healthy and fit, crew members like this one from Romania, have built a make-shift gym.
While quarantined, I've had the chance to meet many of the crew. Tanguy is the undisputed hero here. No one has rescued more people than the 38-year-old Frenchman. According to some, the man at the helm of the lifeboat has saved more than 10,000 people from drowning. Even at the risk of his own life, Tanguy keeps his cool and gets the people to obey his orders and stay calm – and alive.
With her winning smile, Miriam Willis warms the hearts of all on board. The 35-year-old from Cambridge, UK, is responsible for the logistics on the Ocean Viking. She arranges everything for the refugees, from food and drink to clothes, a space for sleeping and washing up. Miriam has worked the past five years for Doctors Without Borders, in Myanmar, South Sudan and Central Africa.
Saving people does not come cheaply. Each day Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee spend at sea on the Ocean Viking costs 14,000 euros. A portion of the money goes towards paying rent on the ship. The organizations need new lifeboats and better equipment for the crew. But there’s not enough money for that. The NGOs rely entirely on donations.
After leaving court on Friday, Salvini said the ruling shows that "a minister who defended the dignity and the borders of Italy is a minister who simply did his duty."
Salvini's legal battles about his "closed ports" policy are not over. He faces another trial in September in a separate but similar case.
In Palermo, he is charged with kidnapping and abuse of office for refusing to allow 164 migrants off the rescue ship operated by Spanish charity Open Arms for six days in August 2019.
"If there was no kidnapping found in Catania, I don't know why there should be any in Palermo," said Salvini.
He could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.