Italy's Salvini Wins Senate Panel Support to Block Trial Threat

(Bloomberg) -- Italian Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini won the support of a key committee in the Rome-based Senate, which voted to block a possible trial in a case that’s strained the fractious populist coalition.

Senators on the immunity committee voted by 16 to 6 against a request from a Sicilian ministers’ tribunal to pursue the case against Salvini, who leads the anti-immigration League, news wire Ansa reported. The case is now expected to go to the full Senate, which is due to vote on it by Feb. 25.

Supporters of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the League’s coalition partner and sometime rival, had backed immunity from prosecution for Salvini in a separate vote Monday. In the online vote, 59 percent backed immunity, according to Five Star’s blog.

The so-called Diciotti case, in which Salvini is accused of kidnapping, stems from his refusal to let a migrant ship dock in Sicily last summer. The issue has strained relations between the League and Five Star, potentially jeopardizing the coalition. The question of immunity also posed a philosophical dilemma for Five Star, which has long campaigned for politicians to be held legally accountable for their actions.

Five Star leaders ultimately justified their backing for Salvini by arguing that his actions were part of government policy, saying he’d refused permission for the migrants to disembark while arrangements were worked out with other European Union countries.

Five Star reached its position “remaining faithful to its own values and to the principle of direct democracy,” Ansa cited Stefano Patuanelli, head of Five Star senators, as saying.

"Letting people vote is part of our DNA," Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio, who is Italy’s other deputy premier, wrote in a blog post after the online result. Di Maio also called for a vote soon on the party’s new structure.

Di Maio’s Facebook page was flooded with comments and attacks, with some calling the online poll "Five Star Movement’s suicide." Daily Corriere della Sera reported a strong division between the party’s lawmakers on how to approach the Senate vote.

A poll by SWG for LA7 TV Monday reported a further drop in support for Five Star, now at 22.1 percent, 11 percentage points behind the League.

Salvini, who denies any wrongdoing in the case, has said in recent weeks that his refusal to allow the 177 migrants to disembark in August was a government decision, hence the entire government should be held accountable.

Di Maio, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Five Star Transportation Minister Danilo Toninelli backed Salvini’s stance with separate statements filed to the Senate, confirming their position that the Diciotti decision was taken collectively.

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