The Italian Left’s efforts to remain in power supported by politicized judges and prosecutors

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As the specter of early elections loomed over the left-wing coalition government in Italy, the League’s leader Matteo Salvini was summoned to his first hearing in a trial meant to make him ineligible to run again for office for years, just as was done with Silvio Berlusconi when he was the uncontested leader of the “center-right” bloc.

Salvini, whose party has led in opinion polls since the creation of a new coalition of the Five-Star Movement (M5S) with the left-wing Democratic Party (PD), losing ground only to its more radical ally Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), now has to face two trials for decisions taken when he was the interior minister and vice-premier in Conte’s first government.

One case concerns the Gregoretti Italian coast guard vessel whom Salvini forbade to disembark illegal immigrants in July 2019 and the second case is about the Open Arms, a Spanish ship belonging to a Spanish NGO, Activa Open Arms, which was faced with closed Italian ports in August of the same year. In both cases, the illegal immigrants were finally disembarked after a few days after other EU countries agreed to take their share.

A second hearing in the Gregoretti case was held by the Ministers Tribunal in Catania, Sicily, on Dec. 12. The first hearing in the Open Arms case was held in Palermo on Jan. 9. In both cases, Salvini is being charged with having supposedly kidnapped migrants, i.e. with forcing illegal immigrants to stay on board against their will, when they wanted to land in Italy against the will of a majority of the Italian people.

The Italian Senate, where the left-wing coalition held a majority before the split with Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva last Wednesday, gave its green light for the Gregoretti trial against Salvini in February last year and for the Open Arms trial at the end of July. In another case which was identical to the Gregoretti case as it concerned another coast guard vessel — the Diciotti — with illegal immigrants on board in August 2018, the Senate had refused in March 2019 to allow prosecutors to put Salvini on trial before the Ministers’ Tribunal, but that was when the M5S was still in a coalition with the League.

Thus, it appears that the M5S senators voted against giving the green light to put Salvini on trial in the Diciotti case because he was a political ally but in favor of the same in the Gregoretti and Open Arms cases because he had become a political opponent.

Salvini now faces up to 15 years in prison, knowing that any sentence of over 24 months will make him ineligible to run for office.

In the Diciotti case, it became known in May 2020 that pro-immigration prosecutors and judges, including leading members of the CSM, the country’s judicial council whose role is to guarantee the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, had colluded in 2018 to build a case against the then Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for political motives, while it seemed very clear to them that Salvini had not done anything illegal.

The man who first opened the Diciotti case was Luigi Patronaggio, the chief prosecutor in Agrigento, Sicily. Two days after Patronaggio opened the case on Aug. 22, 2018, CSM member Luca Palamara — a prosecutor whose conversations and chats were tapped because of a corruption inquiry — wrote to him: “Dear Luigi, Legnigni will call you too, we are all with you”. Giovanni Legnini was the vice-president of the CSM. This former Communist Party member was one of the parliament’s appointees to the CSM, and he had been chosen to sit on the Italian judicial council while being a member of the Democratic Party (PD) and a minister in Matteo Renzi’s government.

The La Verità daily newspaper who first disclosed Palamara’s leaked conversations also published several other chats showing that other members of the CSM and of the Italy’s main magistrates’ association, the ANM, were discussing the best strategy to attack Salvini.

Prosecutor Luigi Patronaggio is also the magistrate who first opened the case which led to the current Open Arms trial against Salvini. As Salvini’s defense team argued at the Jan. 9 hearing, the case is all the more ludicrous that the Open Arms’ captain, a Spaniard who faced charges of aiding illegal immigration in Aug. 2019, refused offers from Malta and Spain to disembark the illegal immigrants he had taken on board and deliberately chose to wait several days off Lampedusa’s shore to force Italy to open its ports to migrants.

There can therefore be little doubt that those two trials against Salvini are political trials organized by the Italian parliamentary and judicial Left at a time when the Left, due to its own divisions and its lack of popular support, risks losing power in favor of a right-wing coalition led by Salvini.

The current situation is reminiscent of what happened to Berlusconi in 2013. Berlusconi was then convicted for supposed tax fraud committed by one of his companies, Mediaset, at a time when he was prime minister and therefore not in control of Mediaset. It was Berlusconi’s only conviction ever out of the many prosecutions he had to face during his political carrier.

In June 2020, Italian newspaper Il Reformista published on its website an audio recording in which the now deceased Cassation Court Judge Amadeo Franco said to Berlusconi in a private conversation how sorry he was for having taken part in the 2013 judicial farce which was “steered from above”. He claimed this pressure was applied to him to cassation court’s president Antonio Esposito whose son, who was also a magistrate, and was targeted by a prosecutor’s inquiry for drug possession. Franco was suggesting that Esposito may have been seeking to bring charges against Berlusconi in exchange for leniency for his own son’s case. The 2013 judgment made Berlusconi, the then main opposition leader, ineligible to run for five years.

Antonio Tajani, who was president of the European Parliament until July 2019 and is a leading member of Berlusoni’s Forza Italia party, reacted to the leaked recording by calling Berlusconi’s 2013 conviction a judicial coup against Italian democracy. Berlusconi has filed a complaint against the Italian state in the European Court of Human Rights.

Surprisingly, while the European Commission has been very active in fighting Poland’s reforms of the judiciary on the grounds that those reforms could make the judicial system too political and not independent enough from the executive and legislative powers, in the case of Italy, where there have been proven cases of successful efforts by the Left to eliminate political opponents with the help of politicized, left-leaning judges and prosecutors, the same European Commission has failed to react.

This is yet another illustration of the Commission’s double standard when it comes to monitoring the rule of law in EU member states.

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