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Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini in court over migrant detention claims

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Former Interior Minister and Leader of League Party Matteo Salvini attends a party rally in San Giovanni La Punta, near Catania, Sicily, Oct. 1, 2020.
Former Interior Minister and Leader of League Party Matteo Salvini attends a party rally in San Giovanni La Punta, near Catania, Sicily, Oct. 1, 2020.   -   Copyright  Mauro scrobogna/LaPresse via AP
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Italy's far-right chief Matteo Salvini appears in court Saturday for allegedly illegally detaining migrants at sea, in a potentially career-derailing trial he has transformed into a political convention.

Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Catania accuse Salvini of abusing his powers as then-interior minister to block 116 migrants from disembarking from the Italian Gregoretti coastguard boat last year, under his so-called "closed ports" policy.

If the opposition leader and head of the anti-immigrant League party is convicted for more than two years, he could well also be barred from holding public office for six years, preventing him from running for prime minister at the next election in 2023.

"I've picked out my best suit" for the hearing, Salvini quipped as he arrived in Catania Thursday for three days of rallies, dinners and debates on issues from immigration to security in the city's port area.

The League has printed T-Shirts and advertised cheap flights for the "Italians choose freedom" festival, which will feature fellow far-right head Giorgia Meloni, of the Brothers of Italy party, and bigwigs from ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.

A 500-strong police force will be tasked with preventing clashes between Salvini fans and left-wing protesters.

Due to address a rally Saturday after the hearing, Salvini has said he'll "plead guilty of having defended Italy and Italians".

In court will be a Nigerian family who claim they were "treated worse than animals" and are a civil party in the case.

'Italians will decide'

The 116 migrants, who hailed largely from Sudan, as well as central and western Africa, were rescued in the Mediterranean in two separate operations on July 25 last year after five days at sea. There were 15 unaccompanied minors among them.

They were transferred to the Gregoretti on July 26, then held on the overcrowded patrol vessel under a fierce summer sun despite a scabies outbreak and a suspected case of tuberculosis.

The 15 minors were eventually allowed off on July 29 following pressure from Catania's juvenile court.

The remaining migrants disembarked on July 31 after Salvini, 47, said a deal had been brokered with EU countries to take them.

His defence team insists the decision to hold them was not Salvini's alone, but reached collectively within the government.

It will be up to preliminary hearing judge Nunzio Sarpietro to decide if the case is strong enough for the trial to proceed.

He may not arrive at a decision Saturday, but request further preliminary hearings, Italian media said.

Salvini, who has said Sicilian judges would be better off concentrating on jailing mafiosi than trying him, declared that it would be "the Italians, in the next elections, who will say whether I did the right thing or not".

Analysts say the legal trouble is unlikely to hurt Salvini's popularity, but could on the contrary work in his favour.

Salvini's fierce "Italians First" stance saw his popularity shoot up as interior minister, though his polling numbers slid significantly during the coronavirus lockdown, which overshadowed the migrant question.

With the centre-left government promising to water down Salvini's harsh security decree which makes it easier to expel migrants, the stage is set for a fresh political showdown.

The far-right is hoping to cash in once more on a vote-winning issue.