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Richard Gere summoned to testify as Italy's leader goes on trial over stranded migrants

Migrants stranded off Italy rescued after 19 days
Migrants stranded off Italy rescued after 19 days at sea 01:25

Hollywood star Richard Gere has been summoned to testify as 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 in 2019.

On the opening day of the trial in Palermo, Judge Roberto Murgia said all the witnesses submitted by the parties would be allowed to testify, including Gere -- who made a humanitarian visit to the ship -- and Italy's former prime minister Giuseppe Conte.

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.

The hearing was largely procedural and lasted less than three hours before Murgia set the next hearing for December 17.

Salvini, who was present in court, could face a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted.

"You tell me how serious a trial is where Richard Gere will come from Hollywood to testify about my nastiness," Salvini told journalists outside the courtroom. "I hope it lasts as short a time as possible because there are more important things to take care of."

In a tweet referencing Gere, Salvini said he was "proud of having done my duty and defending the borders!"

Salvini has said he was protecting Italy with his "closed ports" policy aimed at stopping people attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

APTOPIX Europe Migrants
A man waves as he disembarks from the Open Arms rescue ship on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019.  Salvatore Cavalli / AP

He has claimed the decision not to allow the ship to dock was not his alone, but agreed by the government, including by then-prime minister Conte.

Other witnesses the court allowed to testify include Italy's current Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.

Civil party Open Arms, the Spanish charity that operated the rescue vessel, had requested Gere as a witness, since he had boarded the ship in solidarity with the migrants before it docked at the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.

"Saving people isn't a crime, but an obligation"

Ahead of the hearing, Salvini tweeted a photo of himself inside the courtroom, standing in front one of the cells used for some defendants.

"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.

But 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 the same day that 406 migrants rescued in various operations off the coast of Libya by German charity ship Sea Watch 3 arrived at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo.

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.

As CBS News correspondent Holly Williams reported, video showed some of the migrants apparently in a state of despair, hysterical in some cases, and clearly very angry. Several jumped overboard and attempted to swim to shore.

A subsequent onboard inspection revealed serious overcrowding and dire sanitary conditions.

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.

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