Head of the far-right Lega party and Italian senator, Matteo Salvini (L) and his lawyer Giulia Bongiorno (2ndL) arrive for a preliminary hearing at the Catania courthouse, Sicily, on October 3, 2020, facing charges over allegedly illegally detaining migrants at sea while he was a government minister in July 2019. AFP
Italy's far-right leader Matteo Salvini went to court on Saturday to try to persuade a judge not to charge him with illegally detaining migrants at sea - a crime that carries a maximum 15-year prison term.
The high profile case centres on an incident in July 2019, when Salvini, the then interior minister, blocked more than 100 people aboard a coastguard ship for six days as he waited for European allies to agree to take them in.
Salvini, who heads the anti-immigrant League party, has looked to leverage maximum political gain from the legal battle, saying he had been acting in the national interest by slowing the flow of undocumented migrants from across the Mediterranean.
"Moving forward with my head held high, with confidence, certain to have always acted in the defence of the homeland and for the security of Italians," Salvini wrote on Twitter before entering the courtroom in eastern Sicily.
Judge Nuzio Sarpietro is presiding over the closed-door hearing and could order subsequent sittings. Corriere della Sera newspaper said he might want to interview Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte before deciding whether or not to indict Salvini.
It is not clear when a decision might come.
Magistrates on Sicily have put together a case arguing that Salvini effectively kidnapped the migrants, keeping them at sea in blazing summer weather until European allies buckled and agreed to resettle them.
Salvini has said the group was well treated on the coastguard ship and has stressed that Conte and the entire government backed his decision. The League leader pulled out of the coalition just two weeks later and is now in opposition.
Salvini has assembled all the League's parliamentarians in Catania ahead of the hearing in a show of solidarity, organising three days of debates on the future of Italy. Other prominent right-wing politicians also turned up to show their support.
"It is the duty ... of any minister to do what the majority of Italians have asked of him and defend the laws and borders of the nation," tweeted Giorgia Meloni, head of the Brothers of Italy party, posting a photograph of herself alongside Salvini.
The upper house Senate voted in February to lift Salvini's parliamentary immunity and let magistrates press charges. If the case eventually goes to trial and Salvini is found guilty he would be forced to step down as a senator.
Salvini was interior minister for a year and during that time focused much of his energy in trying to prevent migrants crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe.
The numbers of newcomers fell dramatically while he was in office. They have risen in recent months but are nowhere near the levels seen in 2016, when more than 180,000 migrants reached Italy.