Rome (AP) - The Italian Senate has lifted the immunity of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini in the dispute over the rescue of migrants for the second time this year.

This clears the way for a further trial against the party leader of the right-wing Lega because of his anti-refugee policy as a minister until 2019. After a debate lasting several hours, 149 senators voted in favor of the lifting - and 141 against, the chamber said.

The current case is a case of deprivation of liberty and abuse of office in a court in Palermo, Sicily. A year ago, as Minister of the Interior, Salvini blocked the private Spanish rescue ship “Open Arms” with dozens of migrants on board for almost three weeks at sea.

The Lega boss is a senator in the smaller of two Houses of Parliament in Rome. He actually enjoys impunity. But already in February of this year, the Senate had overturned Salvini's immunity in a similar case. At that time it was about blocking the "Gregoretti" coast guard ship with 131 migrants. According to previous information, this first process should start on October 3 in Catania, Sicily, with a preliminary hearing.

In the heated debate in the Senate, Salvini spoke of a “political process” and called the “Open Arms” a “pirate ship”. The 47-year-old said: "I thank those who send me to a trial: they are doing me a favor." He faces 15 years in prison if convicted. In addition, his political activity could be banned at times.

The vote comes at a time when the opposition leader is already drumming powerfully for seven planned regional elections in September. The migration issue is also making waves because hundreds of people come to Italy from Libya and Tunisia in small boats across the Mediterranean every day.

Salvini always claims to have done its duty in the interests of the citizens. "As a minister, I acted with the entire government to defend my country," the right-wing populist wrote on Twitter. From June 2018 to early September 2019, he was minister in the first government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Then he got out with the Lega. His coalition partner, the five-star movement, teamed up with the Social Democrats (PD) for the current government.

Rescue of migrants at sea is a hot topic both in Italy and in Europe. Salvini blocked lifeboats several times to force other European countries to take over people. A European takeover agreement was concluded in Malta in 2019. But the situation on Europe's southern border did not really improve.

The current government in Rome announced the abolition of strict laws against private rescuers that Salvini had initiated. However, due to the Corona crisis since February, the topic has taken a back seat. In addition, the number of migrants dropped sharply during the spring lockdown. During this phase, Rome declared its ports "not safe" and thus closed them to private lifeboats.

In July, the number of migrants arriving in Italy rose sharply: to 6431 to date. In the same month of 2019, according to the Interior Ministry, there were 1,088, in 2018 almost 2,000 people in 2018. If you look at the period from January to July, Italy so far counts around 13,400 arrivals of migrants. That was significantly more than at the same time in 2019, but not as many as in 2018 (18,408 to July).

Most of the people who come across the sea in small boats are currently Tunisians. The countries of origin of Bangladesh and Ivory Coast follow. The right-wing parties, particularly Salvini's Lega, are campaigning against migrants, whom they describe as a possible Covid-19 health risk. And they argue against the government, which does not protect the borders enough.

© dpa-infocom, dpa: 200730-99-987403 / 2