PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) – Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s right-wing League party, said a trial where he faces kidnapping charges for refusing to let a migrant ship dock in the country in 2019 was not serious as actor Richard Gere was admitted to testify.
Salvini, who was Italy’s interior minister at that time, appeared on Saturday at the second hearing of a trial in the Sicilian capital Palermo, where the court approved a list of witnesses.
Witnesses include Italy’s former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, other senior Italian politicians and Hollywood actor Richard Gere, who was in Italy at the time and joined the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms — which managed the rescue ship — to deliver food to people on board.
“Now you tell me how serious is a trial where Richard Gere comes from Hollywood to testify on how bad I am,” Salvini said.
Proactiva Open Arms told the court Gere could give a direct account of the conditions on board the vessel, which was stranded off the Italian island of Lampedusa for 19 days before prosecutors ordered the evacuation of the people on board.
It is not clear whether Gere will appear in person to give evidence at the trial.
Salvini, who has built much of his political fortune on an anti-immigration campaign, said he simply did his duty as a minister.
“Defending a country’s borders, security, honour and dignity is not just a minister’s duty but everyone’s duty,” he said. “Being put on trial for just doing my duty is surreal,” he said.
“A Spanish boat refusing to go to Spain commits an abuse,” he added. “If Spain gives its flag to boats it does not manage to control, then there is a problem”.
Salvini could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty at the end of a long three-stage judicial process.
A definitive conviction could bar him from future government office.
The court scheduled a further hearing on Dec. 17.
(Writing by Giulio Piovaccari; Editing by Christina Fincher)