Put me on trial, defiant Salvini says in Italian migrant boat case

* Parliament to vote on whether to lift Salvini's immunity

* Salvini faces kidnapping charges over blocked migrants

* Any trial would take years to complete

By Angelo Amante

, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Matteo Salvini, leader of 's right-wing League party, defiantly asked on Wednesday to be put on trial for detaining migrants at sea last year, even though the case could potentially sink his political career.

Senators were due to vote during the day on whether to lift Salvini's immunity after magistrates said they wanted to charge him for refusing to let a group of migrants dock last July as he waited for other European Union states to agree to take them in.

Salvini, an anti-immigrant populist who was serving as interior minister at the time, could eventually face up to 15 years in jail if found guilty at the end of 's tortuous legal process which normally takes years.

Conviction could also bar him from political office, dashing his ambitions to lead a future government.

With the vote in parliament almost certain to go against him, Salvini sought to make political capital out of the case, depicting himself as the defender of 's national interests.

"I have chosen against my own interests...to go to court and rely on the impartiality of the judiciary," said Salvini.

"Unlike others who run away, I do not flee and I will calmly await judgment, first of the courts and then of the Italian people when they get to vote," he told reporters.

The byzantine nature of 's legal system means Salvini faces no immediate risk, but the case could prove a regular distraction as other investigations start to pile up at his door.

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Earlier this month another tribunal in Sicily recommended that Salvini should stand trial over a separate migrant stand-off dating from last August, with parliament expected to decide on this case later in the year.

POLITICAL INDEPENDENCE

During his 14 months at the interior ministry, Salvini made tackling migrant boats a priority, barring ports to rescue ships and threatening the charities operating them with fines.

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In July, two weeks before he abandoned a coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, he refused to let migrants disembark from the Gregoretti coastguard vessel, ignoring pleas from human rights groups to let the group come ashore.

Magistrates in Sicily say this was an abuse of power and amounted to de facto kidnapping. But under Italian law, former ministers cannot be tried for actions undertaken while in office unless parliament authorises the investigation.

Senior League politician Giulia Bongiorno, who is an experienced lawyer, has publicly urged Salvini to fight to maintain his immunity, warning a trial could backfire on him.

In the Senate (upper house) on Wednesday she said parliament should not accept the court request as this would undermine political independence. "Senator Salvini, your destiny is at stake, but also the autonomy of political power," she said.

The Gregoretti investigation echoes another case from earlier last year when magistrates sought to try Salvini over his decision to keep 150 migrants aboard a coastguard ship for five days in August 2018.

On that occasion, parliament blocked the request, with 5-Star rallying to his support, arguing that the decision to keep the migrants at sea was a collective one. This time, his one-time allies say he acted unilaterally without prior assent. (Reporting by Angelo Amante Writing by Crispian Balmer Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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