Don’t close ports to migrants, pope says after Salvini case

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis on Wednesday said politicians should not close ports to desperate migrants, speaking after a court got a green light to pursue an investigation of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s anti-immigrant former interior minister.

“In the whole world, men and women migrants face risky voyages to escape violence, to escape, war, to escape poverty,” Francis said during his weekly general audience at the Vatican.

“Many times, they are not allowed to disembark in ports … they are exploited by criminal traffickers, today! Some politicians treat them like numbers and see them as a threat,” he said, partly departing from his prepared remarks.

The comments by the pope, who has made defense of migrants a key part of his pontificate, came two days after an Italian Senate committee decision that could lead to a trial of Salvini for alleged kidnapping of migrants.

In July 2019 Salvini, who had staked his political credibility on a vow to curb immigration from Africa, ordered 131 rescued migrants to remain on a ship off Sicily for six days until other European states agreed to take them in.

The court in the Sicilian city of Catania — a special tribunal in charge of investigations into ministers — recommended last month that he stand trial on charges of illegally detaining migrants on the coast guard ship Gregoretti.

If definitively found guilty, the head of the far-right League, currently Italy’s most popular party, would face up to 15 years in jail. He could also be barred from political office, dashing his ambitions to lead a future government.

Salvini said he would face an eventual trial “with my head high”.

Francis did not mention the case against Salvini, who has often criticized Francis for his defense of migrants.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella, editing by Larry King)