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Italian judge orders Conte to testify in Salvini migrant case

CATANIA, Italy (Reuters) - An Italian judge on Saturday ordered Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and an array of senior officials to testify at a hearing into whether far-right leader Matteo Salvini should be tried for illegally detaining migrants.

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The decision to broaden the investigation could prove awkward for Conte and comes at a time when his government is struggling to revise anti-migrant rules drawn up by Salvini during his brief time as interior minister from 2018-2019.

The high-profile case centres on an incident in July 2019, when Salvini 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.

He also says the entire government backed his initiative, something Conte has disputed.

Magistrates in Sicily put together a case arguing that Salvini kidnapped the migrants, keeping them at sea in fierce heat until European allies buckled and agreed to resettle them. Such a charge carries a maximum 15-year prison term.

Saturday’s hearing in the city of Catania was called to decide whether there was enough evidence to try Salvini. The state prosecutor suggested there was not and recommended that Judge Nuzio Sarpietro dismiss the case.

However, Sarpietro decided to dig deeper and summoned Conte to appear at a hearing on Nov. 20 along with Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and former Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli to question them about the affair.

A subsequent sitting was set for Dec. 4 to hear current Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese, former Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta and Italy’s EU ambassador Maurizio Massari.

There was no immediate comment from the government.

Salvini said he was pleased by the decision. “I am very satisfied to hear from the judge that what was done was not done by me alone,” he told reporters.

Salvini pulled his party out of the ruling coalition two weeks after the migrant controversy and is now in opposition.

The upper house Senate voted in February to lift his parliamentary immunity, with his former allies in government the 5-Star Movement backing calls for his trial.

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 new coalition is trying to revise the measures he introduced, including his move to hike fines on charity ships that pick up migrants from the sea. However talks are floundering, with the centre-left Democratic Party pushing for more sweeping changes than 5-Star.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by William Maclean and Frances Kerry

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