Italy’s former interior minister Matteo Salvini has gone on trial charged with kidnapping for refusing to allow a Spanish migrant rescue ship to dock in Sicily, keeping the people onboard at sea for days in in 2019.

It is the first trial to go ahead against Salvini for his actions preventing migrant landings while he served as interior minister during 2018/19 in an uneasy coalition between the populist 5-Star Movement and his right-wing League group.

Salvini was present for the opening day of the trial in Palermo, Sicily, which was expected to deal mostly with procedural requests.

Matteo Salvini arrives at Palermo’s court
Matteo Salvini arrives at Palermo’s court (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

He has insisted he was fulfilling his duty by refusing entry to the Open Arms rescue ship, and the 147 people it had saved in the Mediterranean Sea off Libya.

He took a hard line on migrant arrivals, blocking ships and pushing for Europe to take some of the burden off Italy.

Prosecutors accuse Salvini of dereliction of duty and kidnapping for refusing to allow the ship into port for days in August 2019.

During the near-three-week standoff, some migrants threw themselves overboard in desperation and the captain pleaded for a safe, nearby port.

Some migrants were taken to land for humanitarian or health reasons, while the remaining 83 were eventually allowed to disembark on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Open Arms founder Oscar Camps
Open Arms founder Oscar Camps (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

“We expect justice for the unnecessary suffering that all the people had in those 20 days,” said Oscar Camps, head of the Spanish non-governmental organisation Open Arms.

A court in Catania, Sicily, earlier this year decided not to try Salvini in a similar case, for keeping 116 migrants on board an Italian coastguard ship at sea for five days, also in 2019.