by Miriam Rossi
It is the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which, on 26 June 1987, set out in its first article a definition of torture. “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession”. Or acts “to punish for an act that he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed”. Or acts “to intimidate and coerce him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind”. The key element is that such pain or suffering is inflicted by, or at the instigation or with the consent of, a public official or other person acting with this capacity. And it is the same Convention that established the World Day Against Torture, which fell yesterday.
The history of the crime of torture in Italy goes from the Bolzaneto barracks during the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001, through the cases of Federico Aldrovandi in 2005 and Stefano Cucchi in 2009, to the notorious but not yet legally recognised cases of Aldo Bianzino in 2007, Carmelo Castro in 2009 and Enrico Lombardo in 2019, to the case of the Verona police headquarters, which recently hit the headlines with the arrest of five policemen and the investigation of 17 others for offences including assault, forgery, omission of official acts, embezzlement and abuse of office. In the midst of this, Italy finally recognised the crime of torture with its introduction into the penal code in 2017 (Law 110 of 14/07/2017), 28 years after the ratification of the 1984 Convention Against Torture. However, according to Amnesty International, the wording of the offence does not comply with Article 1 of the UN Convention and is unclear, i.e. of limited applicability; in any case, this was a significant step forward, as until then the silence of the code on torture had forced the judiciary to condemn such acts by disguising them as “generic offences”.
A few years later, on 15 January 2021, for the first time a member of the Ferrara prison police was sentenced for the torture of a man held in Estense prison (two other colleagues, also accused of beatings and torture, are awaiting trial). A decision that clearly shows that no one can claim to be above the law, even, or especially, if they wear a uniform and, with such gestures, fail in their function as guarantors of the law. From then on, things seem to change: based on the reconstruction of the “XVII. Torture in prison in Italy: an overview of the trials”, by the Antigone Association, there are currently several criminal cases before the Public Prosecutor’s Office concerning alleged cases of torture in Italian prisons, with no great difference between the north and the south of Italy. On 17 February 2021, the Court of Siena convicted 10 prison officers working in the San Gimignano prison of torture and aggravated assault for the brutal beating of a Tunisian prisoner. In both the Ferrara and San Gimignano cases, the investigating magistrates included among the defendants a nurse (accused of forgery and aiding and abetting) and a doctor (for refusal to carry out official duties, for failing to examine and report the victim).
In Turin, 25 officers are being prosecuted for a dozen episodes of brutal violence dating back to 2017; disciplinary measures are currently being taken against all the officers involved and the prison director is being prosecuted for complicity and failure to report. In Palermo, an alleged case of ill-treatment is being investigated following a spontaneous report by a detainee in 2020 who reported violence immediately after arriving at the prison: investigations are underway against the officers for torture and against the doctors for not having diagnosed the injuries. A similar situation was reported by a detainee in Monza prison in 2019, who was violently assaulted by several prison officers in the corridor of the section where he was held.
Torture was also reported in the Opera prison in Milan in the pandemic period of March 2020, following an internal revolt by inmates over tensions related to the lack of guarantees of protection in the face of the Covid-19 epidemic, for which they were themselves sentenced. And in the same period in Melfi prison, as in Milan, as punishment for the protest that broke out on 9 March 2020: the inmates were allegedly stripped naked, beaten, insulted, put in solitary confinement and finally transferred. A similar situation occurred in Pavia prison, where some inmates were beaten and deprived of food.
A few weeks ago, in April 2020, videos showing beatings, prisoners on their knees and being hit by police officers in the Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison shook Italy: 105 people were investigated, including officers, officials and doctors. A case similar to the more recent one in Verona a few weeks ago, in which the images are absolutely clear to decipher.
While we wait for the judicial decision, and in the light of the sad decalogue of reported violence, one wonders on what grounds Minister Nordio intends to authorise the ‘technicalities’ of the crime: one can only share the concerns of Riccardo Noury, spokesperson for Amnesty International Italy, about the long road to authorisation of the crime of torture, which is strongly opposed by the very members of the current Italian Government. Noury recalls how Prime Minister Meloni himself wrote a tweet in 2018, which was later deleted, saying ‘The crime of torture prevents agents from doing their job’. And also ‘We defend those who defend us’ and again ’We are always on the side of the forces of law and order’. What is the Meloni government’s concept of the rule of law? The silence in the face of the blatant case of the Verona police headquarters is almost prophetic.
Cover image: ©photobyphotoboy/Shutterstock.com