By Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) - Italy has softened rules penalising aid groups that bring illegal migrants ashore and extended protection for refugees who risk persecution at home, drawing the fire of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini who set the tough measures.
Rescue boats which violate official orders in carrying out their activity will now face lighter fines, of up to 50,000 euros ($59,000), compared with up to 1 million euros previously, according to a decree approved by the government.
Migrants will, meanwhile, not be expelled if they "risk being subjected to torture or inhumane treatment" at home, under the decree, which also makes it easier for those who hold special residence permits to obtain a regular working visa.
"The propaganda/Salvini decrees are no more," tweeted Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the Democratic Party (PD) in a coalition government. "We want a more humane and safe Italy."
However Salvini, who remains a popular figure in Italian politics with his anti-immigrant League party topping opinion polls, denounced the decision.
"Open ports (and wallets) for smugglers and illegal migrants are back," he said in a statement. "We will stop them."
Salvini, leader of the League, has repeatedly accused aid groups of being complicit with people-smugglers by sending out rescue boats to pick up migrants from the fragile vessels in which they set out to sea.
During his 14 months in office, he closed ports to migrant rescue ships and threatened them with hefty fines if they tried to dock, while clamping down on asylum rights to curb arrivals.
Salvini faces the possibility of being tried for illegally detaining migrants aboard ships when he was interior minister and could face up to 15 years in jail if found guilty.
After months of often tough negotiation, the government of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and centre-left PD has revised some policies set under the last government, in which Salvini was a leading figure.
The decree was passed late on Monday despite opposition from some 5-Star politicians, who were unwilling to water down rules approved under their former coalition with Salvini's party, even though President Sergio Mattarella has criticised those measures.
(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Pravin Char)