Matteo Salvini objects to Richard Gere as witness in kidnap trial

The Italian far-right leader, Matteo Salvini, has criticised the approval of a Hollywood star as a witness in his trial on kidnapping charges for blocking the arrival of a migrant rescue ship.

As the trial began on Saturday, the Palermo judge Roberto Murgia said all witnesses submitted by the parties would be allowed to testify, including the actor Richard Gere, who went on board the NGO ship Open Arms in August 2019 in a show of solidarity with the 147 stranded migrants. The next hearing has been set for 17 December.

Salvini, who was interior minister at the time, barred the ship from docking on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa as part of his tough immigration policies. The migrants were kept on the ship for 19 days in poor sanitary conditions before eventually being allowed to disembark. Some people threw themselves overboard in desperation.

Salvini defended his decision to block the ship, arguing that he was doing so to defend his country and that he had been supported by the government, including the then prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.

He faces a maximum of 15 years in jail if convicted.

Gere was requested as a witness at the trial by Open Arms, the Spanish charity that operated the ship. The actor was on holiday in Tuscany at the time, and when he heard about the stranded vessel he spoke to the NGO before travelling to Lampedusa to support the crew and people on board.

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

The current interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, and the foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, who at the time was deputy prime minister alongside Salvini, have also been approved as witnesses in the trial.

Before the hearing, Salvini tweeted: “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?”

Òscar Camps, the founder and director of Open Arms, said: “Saving people isn’t a crime, but an obligation not only by captains but by the entire state.”

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