Former deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo Salvini is accused of illegally detaining migrants at sea after blocking more than 100 migrants from landing in the country in 2019.
An Italian judge has ordered that Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party, must stand trial on charges of kidnapping over his decision to prevent more than 100 migrants from landing in the country in 2019.
Salvini, who was interior minister at that time, left the migrants stranded at sea until prosecutors ordered the seizure of the ship and the evacuation of the people on board.
During the standoff, some of the migrants threw themselves overboard in desperation as the captain pleaded for a safe, close port. Eventually after a 19-day ordeal, the remaining 83 migrants on board were allowed to disembark in Lampedusa.
Salvini, who has built much of his political fortune on an anti-immigration campaign, could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty at the end of a tortuous, three-stage judicial process.
A definitive conviction could bar him from government office.
"I am going to trial with my head held high, in your name as well as mine. Italy first, always," Salvini tweeted immediately after the ruling. "Defending our country is a citizen's sacred duty ... that is what I am being tried for."
The trial will begin in the Sicilian capital of Palermo on September 15.
READ MORE: Italy's far-right chief Salvini in court for illegally detaining migrants
Tough stance on migration
Salvini had maintained a hard line on migration as interior minister during the first government of Premier Giuseppe Conte, from 2018-2019.
While demanding European Union nations do more to take in migrants arriving in Italy, Salvini argued that humanitarian rescue ships were only encouraging Libyan-based traffickers and that his policy actually saved lives by discouraging the risky trips across the Mediterranean.
Salvini is also under investigation for another, similar migrant standoff involving the Italian coast guard ship Gregoretti that Salvini refused to let dock in the summer of 2019.
The prosecutor in that case, Catania, Sicily Prosecutor Andrea Bonomo, recommended last week that Salvini not be put on trial, arguing that he was carrying out government policy when he kept the 116 migrants at sea for five days.
READ MORE: Why the UN slammed Italy for failing to save 200 migrants from drowning