ROME – Matteo Salvini, the nationalist leader who, as interior minister, wielded enormous influence in Italy, lost his post in the cabinet and in the spotlight, especially after a new prime minister from the establishment has effectively pushed the populists out of the country.
But over the weekend, Mr Salvini’s efforts to regain attention were boosted when a court accepted Richard Gere, the American actor and humanitarian activist, as a witness in a court case in which Mr Salvini will stand trial. for turning back migrants. . He is accused of kidnapping and violation of international human rights conventions.
“You tell me how serious is a trial where Richard Gere will come from Hollywood to testify to my wickedness,” Salvini told reporters on Saturday after a hearing in the Sicilian city of Palermo.
The trial, whose next hearing is on December 17, centers on an August 2019 episode in which Mr Salvini, then Minister of the Interior, for days refused to allow approximately 150 migrants rescued at sea by a ship operated by the Spanish charity Open. Arms. At the time, Mr Gere visited the boat – where activists said a “humanitarian crisis” was underway – in an attempt to draw international attention to the situation.
This year, a judge ruled that Mr Salvini should not stand trial in a similar case because his actions could not be considered a kidnapping. Mr Salvini’s defense is convinced that the ongoing case will also go nowhere, and Giulia Bongiorno, his lawyer, said in a telephone interview that she doubted Mr Gere, who spent 12 hours on board the ship, provides valuable information to the investigation.
“I don’t think he can tell us anything relevant,” she said.
On the contrary, the hearings – and the role of the Hollywood star – could reignite the problem and Mr Salvini’s efforts to position himself as a protector of ordinary Italians persecuted by politically motivated magistrates.
In 2019, Mr. Salvini regularly engaged in high-profile clashes with non-governmental organizations that rescued migrants from the sea and then took them to Italy. Even then, he saw an advantage in Mr. Gere’s arrival on the scene. “I’m sure the generous millionaire will host them all in his villas,” Salvini wrote on Twitter.
The migrant crisis reached its peak in 2015 and 2016 when a record number of unauthorized migrants landed in Italy. Many others have died at sea. Since mid-2017, the number of migrants making the trip by boat has fallen sharply, but that has not stopped populist parties from capitalizing on the subject. Mr. Salvini has made opposition and the demonization of migrants the cornerstone of his political rise.
In 2018, he became Italy’s Home Minister and most popular politician, sparking concerns in his country and across Europe that the country is turning away from the European Union. Mr. Salvini lobbied for a security decree, which became law, and among other things deprived migrants of “humanitarian protection”.
Since then, his fortune has plummeted, as has the number of migrants. He was foiled after spilling over into a power grab, then sidelined his former populist allies enter into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to stay in power. This government eventually collapsed, and the one that replaced it, led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi, included Mr. Salvini’s League party but was firmly opposed to populism.
In the recent municipal elections, the candidates that Mr. Salvini supported and campaigned for defeat in almost every major city.
And so the trial, and Mr. Gere, became a media lifeline.
“What credibility can be a nation in which they allow an actor in search of visibility to testify against a former Minister of the Republic mocking our institutions? Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Nationalist Party of the Brothers of Italy and ally of Mr Salvini, wrote on Twitter. “We have passed the limit of decency.”
Laura Lanuza, spokesperson for Open Arms, said that in 2019 Mr Gere called the group while on vacation in Italy and offered to help. This year, after declaring that he was ready to testify on behalf of the group, Open Arms added him to its witness list, which includes migrants as well as the boat’s captain and crew, Ms. Lanuza. On Saturday, the judge accepted all of the proposed witnesses, but it was not clear whether they would all be called, including Mr Gere. A publicist for Mr Gere said the actor did not have an immediate comment.
She said Mr. Salvini’s emphasis on Mr. Gere’s testimony was a political gamble intended to distract from the trial.
“He is using Richard Gere to distract from the real importance of this trial,” she said in a telephone interview, “and to rewrite his propaganda.”