Italian far-right leader Salvini appears in court for illegally detaining migrants at sea

Italy’s former Interior minister and League leader Matteo Salvini appeared on Saturday before a court in Sicily for a hearing on charges that he illegally detained migrants at sea ahead of a potentially career-derailing trial, news wires reported.

Salvini arrived shortly before 10am local time for the hearing, but he made no comment to waiting press outside the court house in the Sicilian city of Catania. Prosecutors accuse Salvini of abusing his powers when he was 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 also be barred from holding public office for six years, preventing him from running for prime minister in the next election in 2023.

Salvini, who has largely faded from the public spotlight since being ousted as a minister, has turned the preliminary hearing into a political rally of sorts, staging days of events in a piazza in Catania to rail against the government of Premier Giuseppe Conte.

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

The League party 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 has been tasked with preventing clashes between Salvini fans and left-wing protesters.

Salvini is due to address a rally later Saturday after the hearing.

The Italian Senate voted in February to lift Salvini's parliamentary immunity, paving the way for a possible trial on charges of kidnapping and abuse of power. The Gregoretti boat was stuck at sea for days in July 2019 until a judge approved its landing in Augusta, Sicily. The Senate also lifted his immunity in a second case, in which he is accused of refusing to allow 164 migrants off a rescue ship in Sicily. A preliminary hearing in that case is pending.

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

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