Italy's Senate votes Thursday on whether far-right chief Matteo Salvini should be stripped of his parliamentary immunity so he can be tried for the second time for allegedly illegally detaining migrants at sea.
If they remove his immunity, it would open the way for a fresh and potentially career-derailing trial on charges that could see Salvini, a senator, serve up to 15 years in jail.
The head of the anti-immigrant League party is already set to stand trial in a separate but similar case.
Prosecutors in the Sicilian city of Palermo accuse Salvini of abusing his powers as then-interior minister in August 2019 to illegally prevent more than 80 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean from disembarking from the Open Arms charity ship.
Ministers cannot be tried for actions taken while in office unless their parliamentary immunity is revoked by the Senate.
"Defending Italy is not a crime. I am proud of it, I would do it again, and I will do it again," Salvini said on Wednesday.
He has insisted the decision to stop the migrants from getting off the ship until a deal was brokered with EU countries to take them in was reached collectively within the government.
That is the same defence Salvini is using in the other trial, in which he is accused of blocking migrants from disembarking from the Italian "Gregoretti" coast guard boat last July.
In February, the Senate voted to strip him of his parliamentary immunity in that case. The preliminary hearing has been postponed three times due to the coronavirus pandemic, and is now scheduled to take place in Sicily on October 3.
Political analyst Franco Pavoncello said a go-ahead from the Senate on the Open Arms trial would "certainly have an impact on Salvini", whose popularity has dropped since the coronavirus pandemic swept through Italy.
Salvini, 47, says Italy's over two-month lockdown hit him and his party hard, as he had to put an end to his frequent rallies up and down the country and his famous beachside selfie sessions.
A Demopolis poll this week found that the League has dropped over 11 points in a year, from holding 37% of voting intentions to 25.4% today.
"At the moment Salvini generates little media interest. The decision to strip him of his immunity would re-open the case and could whip up media attention," Pavoncello told AFP.
"Those who vote to send him to trial in a bid to create political problems for him could end up giving him the limelight instead."
He warned, however, that while the far-right leader may make temporary gains, "a trial could be difficult for him in the long term, for the charges are serious".
Salvini is currently in opposition but is determined to become prime minister.
Although the League may be slipping down the polls, it is still the most popular party in Italy and its leader expects to do well at the next elections.
A conviction, however, could throw a serious spanner in the works.
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