Matteo Salvini, a former interior minister and the head of Italy’s right-wing League party, is on trial on kidnapping charges related to his denial of entry to a humanitarian ship carrying migrants and asylum seekers abandoned at sea.
And he is angry Hollywood actor Richard Gere is standing as a witness against him.
Mr Salvini was in court on Saturday in the Sicilian capital Palermo, for a hearing to approve the list of witnesses for his trial. Among those set to testify are senior Italian politicians, including former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, and volunteers with the Spanish organisation Proactiva Open Arms, who managed the search-and-rescue ship in question. Gere was in Italy as a volunteer with Open Arms during the 2019 incident.
He is expected to testify about the unsafe conditions aboard the ship.
Mr Salvini, a populist known for his nationalist and anti-immigration politics, could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty and could be barred from holding government office. The trial is expected to stretch over months.
Mr Salvini is accused of abuse of power, dereliction of duty and kidnapping 147 migrants and asylum seekers over his refusal to let the rescue ship dock in Italy.
The ship remained at sea off the Italian island of Lampedusa for 18 days in sweltering heat as conditions aboard rapidly deteriorated.
In desperation, about 15 passengers threw themselves overboard in an attempt to reach Italy as the ship’s captain issued urgent pleas for a safe place to land. As the days wore on, minors and people requiring medical care were permitted to disembark.
An Italian judge eventually overruled Mr Salvini, who was interior minister at the time, and allowed the remaining 83 passengers to disembark at Lampedusa.
Mr Salvini had banned the docking of ships run by nongovernmental organisations in an effort to cut off migration from Africa and the Middle East. But refugees and asylum seekers kept making the journey from Libya to Europe, and humanitarian ships kept rescuing those stranded at sea.
Mr Salvini has rejected the charges as an attack by his political opponents. Among his complaints is that Gere has been approved to testify.
“Now you tell me how serious is a trial where Richard Gere comes from Hollywood to testify on how bad I am,” Mr Salvini said.