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 in 2019.
Salvini was in court Saturday in the Sicilian capital, Palermo, for a hearing to approve the list of witnesses for his trial.
Among those set to testify against him are senior Italian politicians, including former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, and volunteers with the Spanish organization 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.
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.
Refugee and immigration activists are hoping that a ruling against Salvini will set a legal precedent that will deter governments from disrupting such search-and-rescue missions.
“Violating a fundamental right such as the protection of human beings at sea for the sake of political propaganda is shameful,” Open Arms founder Òscar Camps previously told Reuters. He called the trial “an opportunity to judge a period of European history.”
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, France 24 reported.
As the days wore on, minors and people requiring medical care were permitted to disembark.
An Italian judge eventually overruled Salvini, who was interior minister at the time, and allowed the remaining 83 passengers to disembark at Lampedusa.
Salvini had banned the docking of ships run by nongovernmental organizations like Open Arms in an effort to cut off migration from Africa and the Middle East.
But refugees and asylum seekers still kept making the dangerous journey from Libya to Europe on dingy, overcrowded boats — and humanitarian ships kept rescuing those stranded at sea.
Salvini has rejected the charges against him as an attack by his political opponents.
“Defending a country’s borders, security, honor and dignity is not just a minister’s duty but everyone’s duty,” he said, according to Reuters. “Being put on trial for just doing my duty is surreal.”
Among his complaints is that Gere has been approved to testify against him.
“Now you tell me how serious is a trial where Richard Gere comes from Hollywood to testify on how bad I am,” Salvini said, according to Reuters.
It remains unclear whether Gere will testify in person.
More than 1 million refugees tried to enter Europe in 2015 during the height of the migration crisis. The flow of people has significantly declined since Turkey and the European Union signed a 2016 pact to limit migration, among other measures to restrict entry.