Tag Archives: Silvio Berlusconi

There’s Something Rotten in Italy

And it would be churlish, if not outright wrong, to suggest that similar things aren’t happening elsewhere, even in this country. But although fascism is often spoken of in the UK and the US, it is the laws which could underpin such a future regime which are brought up, rather than the reality. In Italy you have the reality being manifested by both the government and its security services, and it isn’t something which Berlusconi, the Northern League or 9/11 are uniquely responsible for.

Take the decision to fingerprint the Roma, an entire ethnic subgroup, on the spurious grounds that there had been a wave of serious crime (there hadn’t) and that they were chiefly responsible for it (they weren’t). The echoes of an identical classification scheme of the Jews by Mussolini haven’t been lost on anyone, nor have the effects. Take this:

Two Roma girls died in the sea under odd circumstances (they couldn’t swim, despite what was no doubt a huge temptation to go in the water, given how hot it was that day). At the very least they were dashed on the rocks and drowned. And when their sisters were taken away by the police to contact their parents, not only were the bodies left there, but the beach goers continued as if nothing had happened. Would you be aghast at the possibility of continuing to sun yourself next to a corpse, or would it depend on whether the child it had just been had irritated you by trying to sell you trinkets earlier on? Would this background matter:

The attitudes of ordinary Italians towards the Roma, never warm, have been chilling for years, aggravated by sensational news coverage of crimes allegedly committed by Gypsies, and a widespread confusion of Roma with ordinary, non-Roma Romanians, who continue to arrive.

Their names were Cristina and Violetta, and they lived in the camp of Secondigliano. The EveryOne human rights group has expressed incredulity that the girls would have chosen to go in the water, when their culture mitigates against such immodesty; the water was also not as rough as reported. They say it would also be unlikely that they would stop begging to just have a lark in the water, particularly as said earlier because they couldn’t swim.

Nick Davies however has a far more terrifying account of Italy’s descent towards fascism, which predates the current hysteria. Here’s a snippit – you have to read this fully to understand the extent of what is happening in the EU right now, under our noses. It surrounds the police behaviour at the 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa, which they have widely been lambasted for already, but without the full story having yet been told:

One of the first to see the riot squad bursting in was Michael Gieser, a 35-year-old Belgian economist, who subsequently described how he had just changed into his pyjamas and was queuing for the bathroom with his toothbrush in his hand when the raid began. He saw the padded jackets, the riot clubs, the helmets and the bandanas concealing the policemen’s faces, changed his mind and ran up the stairs to escape.

Others were slower. They were still in their sleeping bags. A group of 10 Spanish friends in the middle of the hall woke up to find themselves being battered with truncheons. They raised their hands in surrender. More officers piled in to beat their heads, cutting and bruising and breaking limbs, including the arm of a 65-year-old woman. At the side of the room, several young people were sitting at computers, sending emails home. One of them was Melanie Jonasch, a 28-year-old archaeology student from Berlin, who had volunteered to help out in the building and had not even been on a demonstration.

She still cannot remember what happened. But numerous other witnesses have described how officers set upon her, beating her head so hard with their sticks that she rapidly lost consciousness. When she fell to the ground, officers circled her, beating and kicking her limp body, banging her head against a near-by cupboard, leaving her finally in a pool of blood. Katherina Ottoway, who saw this happen, recalled: “She was trembling all over. Her eyes were open but upturned. I thought she was dying, that she could not survive this.

Officers broke down doors to the rooms leading off the corridors. In one, they found Dan McQuillan and Norman Blair, who had flown in from Stansted to show their support for, as McQuillan put it, “a free and equal society with people living in harmony with each other”. The two Englishmen and their friend from New Zealand, Sam Buchanan, had heard the police attack on the ground floor and had tried to hide their bags and themselves under some tables in the corner of the dark room. A dozen officers broke in, caught them in a spotlight and, even as McQuillan stood up with his hands raised saying, “Take it easy, take it easy,” they battered them into submission, inflicting numerous cuts and bruises and breaking McQuillan’s wrist. Norman Blair recalled: “I could feel the venom and hatred from them.

By now, there were police officers on all four floors of the building, kicking and battering. Several victims describe a sort of system to the violence, with each officer beating each person he came across, then moving on to the next victim while his colleague moved up to continue beating the first. It seemed important that everybody must be hurt. Nicola Doherty, 26, a care worker from London, later described how her partner, Richard Moth, lay across her to protect her: “I could just hear blow after blow on his body. The police were also leaning over Rich so they could hit the parts of my body which were exposed.” She tried to cover her head with her arm: they broke her wrist

The signs of something uglier here were apparent first in superficial ways. Some officers had traditional fascist songs as ringtones on their mobile phones and talked enthusiastically about Mussolini and Pinochet. Repeatedly, they ordered prisoners to say “Viva il duce.” Sometimes, they used threats to force them to sing fascist songs: “Un, due, tre. Viva Pinochet!”

The 222 people who were held at Bolzaneto were treated to a regime later described by public prosecutors as torture. On arrival, they were marked with felt-tip crosses on each cheek, and many were forced to walk between two parallel lines of officers who kicked and beat them. Most were herded into large cells, holding up to 30 people. Here, they were forced to stand for long periods, facing the wall with their hands up high and their legs spread. Those who failed to hold the position were shouted at, slapped and beaten. Mohammed Tabach has an artificial leg and, unable to hold the stress position, collapsed and was rewarded with two bursts of pepper spray in his face and, later, a particularly savage beating. Norman Blair later recalled standing like this and a guard asking him “Who is your government?” “The person before me had answered ‘Polizei’, so I said the same. I was afraid of being beaten.

Men and women with dreadlocks had their hair roughly cut off to the scalp. Marco Bistacchia was taken to an office, stripped naked, made to get down on all fours and told to bark like a dog and to shout “Viva la polizia Italiana!” He was sobbing too much to obey. An unnamed officer told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that he had seen brother officers urinating on prisoners and beating them for refusing to sing Faccetta Nera, a Mussolini-era fascist song.

Ester Percivati, a young Turkish woman, recalled guards calling her a whore as she was marched to the toilet, where a woman officer forced her head down into the bowl and a male jeered “Nice arse! Would you like a truncheon up it?” Several women reported threats of rape, anal and vaginal.

The next day, senior officers held a press conference at which they announced that everybody in the building would be charged with aggressive resistance to arrest and conspiracy to cause destruction. In the event, the Italian courts dismissed every single attempted charge against every single person. That included Covell. Police attempts to charge him with a string of very serious offences were described by the public prosecutor, Enrico Zucca, as “grotesque”

This public dishonesty was part of a wider effort to cover up what had happened. On the night of the raid, a force of 59 police entered the building opposite the Diaz Pertini, where Covell and others had been running their Indymedia centre and where, crucially, a group of lawyers had been based, gathering evidence about police attacks on the earlier demonstrations. Officers went into the lawyers’ room, threatened the occupants, smashed their computers and seized hard drives. They also removed anything containing photographs or video tape.

With the courts refusing to charge the detainees, the police secured an order to deport all of them from the country, banning them from returning for five years. Thus, the witnesses were removed from the scene. Like the attempted charges, all the deportation orders were subsequently dismissed as illegal by the courts.

Zucca then fought his way through years of denial and obfuscation. In his formal report, he recorded that all the senior officers involved were denying playing any part: “Not a single official has confessed to holding a substantial command role in any aspects of the operation.” One senior officer who was videoed at the scene explained that he was off duty and had just turned up to make sure his men were not being injured. Police statements were themselves changeable and contradictory, and were overwhelmingly contradicted by the evidence of victims and numerous videos: “Not a single one of the 150 officers reportedly present has provided precise information regarding an individual episode.

No Italian politician has been brought to book, in spite of the strong suggestion that the police acted as though somebody had promised them impunity. One minister visited Bolzaneto while the detainees were being mistreated and apparently saw nothing or, at least, saw nothing he thought he should stop. Another, Gianfranco Fini, former national secretary of the neo-fascist MSI party and the then deputy prime minister, was – according to media reports at the time – in police headquarters. He has never been required to explain what orders he gave.

Most of the several hundred law officers involved in Diaz and Bolzaneto have escaped without any discipline or criminal charge. None has been suspended; some have been promoted. None of the officers who were tried over Bolzaneto has been charged with torture – Italian law does not recognise the offence. Some senior officers who were originally going to be charged over the Diaz raid escaped trial because Zucca was simply unable to prove that a chain of command existed. Even now, the trial of the 28 officers who have been charged is in jeopardy because the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is pushing through legislation to delay all trials dealing with events that occurred before June 2002. Nobody has been charged with the violence inflicted on Covell. And as one of the victims’ lawyers, Massimo Pastore, put it: “Nobody wants to listen to what this story has to say.”

That is about fascism. There are plenty of rumours that the police and carabinieri and prison staff belonged to fascist groups, but no evidence to support that. Pastore argues that that misses the bigger point: “It is not just a matter of a few drunken fascists. This is mass behaviour by the police. No one said ‘No.’ This is a culture of fascism.” At its heart, this involved what Zucca described in his report as “a situation in which every rule of law appears to have been suspended.”

This was the EU in 2001, it is the EU in 2008.


EU Leaders Are Useless

You may have read my previous post about the Italian government’s decision and now action to fingerprint and register all the approximately 150,000 ethnic Roma in Italy – nearly half of them children, a state-sponsored act of appalling racism, the likes of which haven’t been seen in Western Europe since the Second World War. What’s struck me ever since this story broke, was the incredible silence resonating from European capitals. Where is Gordon Brown to stick up for human rights in the EU? Oh he’s too busy using his lackey Jacqui Smith to send gay Iranian, Ugandan and Syrian asylum seekers back to a certain death. Angela Merkel? José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero? Nothing. The EU capitals have been silent. In Brown’s case the situation in Zimbabwe was of paramount importance (and I’m not saying it’s not, because it is), except it seems at least as important to stamp out hatred based on difference at home too. That it’s occurring under the watch of Silvio Berlusconi (not to mention Italy’s highest appeal court) should make it all the more chilling.

But in the absence of anti-racist condemnation by European leaders it has been down to religious, community and civil society leaders to attack the scapegoating of the Roma:

Catholic human rights organisations have damned the fingerprinting of Gypsies as “evoking painful memories”. The chief rabbi of Rome insisted it “must be stopped now”. Roma groups have demonstrated, wearing the black triangles Gypsies were forced to wear in the Nazi concentration camps, and anti-racist campaigners in Rome this week began to bombard the interior ministry with their own fingerprints in protest against the treatment of the Gypsies.

Vincenzo Spadafora, the head of UNICEF in Italy said:

he was “seriously concerned”, adding that the government would be acting in a discriminatory fashion “unless it fingerprinted every child in Italy”.

And it took the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to start condemnation at a supra-national level:

“While I believe that Italian democracy and its institutions are mature enough to prevent any such ideas becoming laws, I am nevertheless concerned that a senior member of the government of one of Council of Europe member states is reported to have made such a proposal,” (Terry) Davis states.

It should be remembered that the Council of Europe was set up in 1949 to guarantee human rights, pluralist democracy and the rule of law in Europe. Maroni’s plan is a slap in the face to the Council’s remit of developing democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights (which the UK enshrined into national law through the Human Rights Act). But this is hardly be the first time a Council of Europe member or indeed EU member has ignored its own fidelity to the ECHR – take Blair’s and now Brown’s asylum policy. ‘Failed’ asylum seekers are criminalised, their persecution is explained away as imaginary, and some face violence even from the UK Border Agency’s enforcers:

(Stephanie Toumi) alleges: “The escorts threw themselves on me. One scraped me and I fell on my stomach, the other trapped my arms, twisting them behind and the other two put on handcuffs. I felt a very severe pain in my body and I wanted to twist my right foot to get up, but one of them totally paralysed this foot by giving me a sharp blow with his knee.

“When they finished handcuffing me one of them caught hold of my hair to lift me up. I felt ill as I have never felt ill all my life.” She alleges that when she started crying, the guards said: “Shut up, stupid whore.”
At Brussels airport, where the escort and the asylum-seeker were due to catch a flight to Cameroon, Belgian immigration officers noticed Ms Toumi was now unable to walk unaided and informed the escorts they would have to take her back to the UK.

An independent doctor’s report found her injuries were due to the alleged assault.

In Italy the castigation of the Roma is all the more appalling, given that many of them are Italian by nationality. Yet Thomas Hammerberg, European Commissioner for Human Rights points out:

“I visited Casalino 900 camp, where 650 or so Roma live,” he said. “There was no electricity, no water. It was a very bad slum.”

And the fear of the “ethnic register” was already rampant, he said, “due to what happened to them in the past in Germany and elsewhere. They also raised the question, why us? Why not others? Many of those in the camp I visited had been in Italy for 40 years; they came over from Yugoslavia, some of them still have problems with identity papers, squeezed between the old and the new country. If you’ve been in a country for 40 years, are you still a foreigner? This talk about fingerprints was another reminder that their status has never been settled.

“The basic problem of Roma is widespread in Europe: housing, health, education, employment, political representation… But for a long time in Italy the Roma have been a symbol of something that is unwanted.

And there you have it. The real problem is poverty and entrenched racism, yet it remains politically convenient and expedient to castigate an ethnic group for their own circumstances, in the case of the former Mayor of Rome Walter Veltoni, conflating their ethnicity with their nationality.

The European Parliament though has now intervened:

Italy’s fingerprinting of members of the country’s Roma community is a direct act of racial discrimination, the European Parliament has said.

In a resolution adopted by 336 votes to 220, MEPs called on Italy to bring the practice to an immediate halt

The resolution called on Italy “to refrain from collecting the fingerprints from Roma, including minors, as this would clearly constitute an act of discrimination based on race and ethnic origin”.

It also “condemned utterly and without equivocation all forms of racism and discrimination faced by the Roma and those seen as ‘gypsies'”.

Of course this isn’t binding, but it should be remembered that the UK government’s reversal of gay Iranian asylum seeker Mehdi Kazemi’s deportation followed intense international pressure which came in part from an EU Parliament resolution on the issue. But:

Italian newspapers have published pictures of officials taking fingerprints from gypsies living in and around the southern city of Naples and filing the prints according to religion, ethnicity and level of education.

We live in dangerous times. If the leaders of the G8 wonder why they’re held in such low regard it should have something to do with eating fine food whilst great swathes of the world starves. It should have something to do with patting Silvio Berlusconi on the back whilst at home a single ethnic group is surveyed, catalogued and generalised against for a problem which isn’t even there. Seumas Milne reminds us of a nominally left-of-centre party which operated on blind obedience to neoliberal economic policy, and whilst experiencing large scale immigration, fell after ignoring growing needs for jobs, housing and to combat exploitation. Britain would do well to learn urgent lessons from Italy’s current crisis.

Race and the EU

Maybe Ireland was right to slam its door on the Lisbon Treaty and didn’t even realise it. Maybe really nasty issues of race are bubbling away in the EU, as the credit crunch bites, and then as history has always shown, people start looking for scapegoats. I’ll just demonstrate France and Italy, given recent stories; the British Home Office is institutionally racist, so you’re welcome to check the stories I’ve written referring to it for your evidence there.

Italy’s repression of the Roma is verging on the borderline terrifying. Whilst the parallels the Independent tries to make with Mussolini and Hitler are probably over stretching the issue, what the new Berlusconi government (where the neo-fascists run free) is doing should concern us all:

The Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, a leader of the rabble-rousing Northern League – close allies of Silvio Berlusconi on the government benches – has explained his next step in his assault on the “emergenza di sicurezza”, the “security emergency”: fingerprinting all Gypsies.

It was the only way, he told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, for Italy to guarantee “to those who have the right to remain here, the possibility of living in decent conditions.” For this purpose the Roma – those with Italian nationality and those without, EU citizens and those from outside the Community – will all have their fingerprints taken. And the rule will even apply to Gypsy children – for reasons that to many of Mr Maroni’s supporters must have sounded obvious: “to avoid phenomena,” as he put it, “such as begging”. The new measures, he said, were indispensable “in order to expel those who do not have the right to stay in Italy”.

Giovanna Boursier, an Italian journalist, found one small camp where the count had already taken place on the furthest southern outskirts of Milan. “There is not even a bar where one could ask the way,” she wrote in Il Manifesto, “but once you scramble up a hill you see the roofs of the huts. There are about 10 of them, along with the caravans, dotted around the outskirts, under flyovers and high-tension wires. Around 40 Roma lived here.”

They told her that the police arrived at dawn, woke everybody up, surrounded the camp and flooded it with lights and then went from home to home, demanding identity documents and photographing them. All the residents were Italian citizens. It made no difference. “This wasn’t a census,” protested a Roma called Giorgio. “This was an ethnic register.”

And there’s no crime data to back up the moral panic about Roma. None. Instead a La Repubblica journalist says:

“Most Italians make no distinction between Italian Roma and those who arrived from Yugoslavia during that country’s break-up. And many Italians think that ‘Rom’ is an abbreviation of ‘Romanian’ – and since the arrival of Romania in the EU there has been a large influx of Romanians. People conflate these separate things. There have been crimes committed by Romanians – and people confuse these with the Rom, and the Rom end up being blamed for everything.

“Security was the over-riding theme of the general election, which is why this conflated Roma-Romanian theme became so big, and a part of the left is very timid about confronting the problem. The security emergency itself is a myth: there has been no increase in the number of rapes, for example – in fact, the number has declined. But when a single case occurs it is splashed on the front page of certain papers for a double reason: it increases the climate of fear; and it damages the centre-left, which is perceived as being weak on security.”

Italy’s Roma paranoia spilled on to the world’s front pages on 13 May, when a woman in a suburb of Naples called Ponticelli alleged that a Roma girl had tried to steal her baby. The community erupted in fury, and thugs belonging to the Camorra crime syndicates threw petrol bombs into the local gypsy squatter camp, driving out the inhabitants and burning the place to the ground. Suddenly there was no avoiding the fact: the Italian hatred for the Roma had taken a dramatic new turn.

But the origin was an ancient fear, rooted not in fact but legend. Mr Bellu said: “There is nothing in police records to support the idea that Roma have stolen babies. It’s just a legend. But one that still has people in its grip.”

It’s scary stuff. Vincenzo Spadafora, head of UNICEF in Italy said:

he was “seriously concerned”, adding that the government would be acting in a discriminatory fashion “unless it fingerprinted every child in Italy”.

Silvio Berlusconi’s government is introducing a series of measures aimed at reducing crime, for which immigrants are increasingly being blamed – including thousands of Romanian Gypsies who have entered Italy since Romania joined the EU last year

A former head of the Union of Jewish Communities in Italy warned the fingerprinting measure set a dangerous precedent. “You start like this then you move on to the exclusion from schools, separated classes and widespread discrimination,” Amos Luzzatto told La Repubblica. Recalling Italy’s fascist past, he added: “Italy is a country that has lost its memory.”

But (Roberto) Maroni insisted the scheme would “give greater guarantees to those who have the right to be here to live in decent conditions”.

It sounds like blaming the persecuted poor for their own persecution and poverty doesn’t it? But Maroni’s not alone in the EU in trying this tactic. Sarko’s at it again too.

The maverick right-wing leader hopes to draft an EU strategy on asylum seekers and refugees which would see an end to amnesties for illegal immigrants, a right for governments to detain individuals for up to 18 months, compulsory Europe-wide ‘integration contracts’ to be signed by new arrivals and a ‘blue card’, based loosely on the American ‘green card’, for highly qualified migrants.

Make no mistake about it, this is Sarkozy playing to his base. No amnesties for illegal immigrants? Setting an EU time limit for detention without charge which would make Britain look like a liberal democracy? ‘Integration contracts’? Eh? Is that Sarko blaming immigrants for a ‘refusal’ to integrate rather than being unable to integrate? Sounds a bit familiar, that. Remember 2005?

The violence has isolated the country’s tough-talking anticrime interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, whom some people blame for having made the situation worse with his blunt statements about “cleaning out” the “thugs” from these neighborhoods.

He regularly conflates law and order with immigration issues, whilst ignoring the fact (as does Berlusconi) that the people who ‘fail to integrate’ are largely second generation nationals. Getting French nationality through birth on French soil is no longer automatic, but the law and order problem in this context in France is not down to new immigrants who ‘refuse’ to integrate – it’s down to poverty and inequality of opportunity for non-white French nationals and residents. Why blame new arrivals?

The Bolivian leader, Evo Morales, said they (the EU proposals) did nothing to combat discrimination and racism.

And he’s right – it’s the point Sarkozy prefers again and again to sidestep, whilst disguising it for cheap political gain:

The French leader stated on an earlier occasion that one of the things Europeans expected from the EU is to shield them from globalisation’s negative effects – but France’s protectionist streak is unlikely to be welcomed unanimously by all other 26 member states.

He has also opposed the European Commission’s position in global trade talks and recently publicly criticised EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson for pursuing a trade liberalisation deal that he said would lead to a one-fifth cut in agricultural production and a reduction in farm exports, while “a child dies of hunger every 30 seconds.”

This is not about France wanting to alleviate child hunger. This is about a set of protectionist proposals with racial undertones – a platform he’s already used to get elected. ‘Shielding Europeans from the negative effects of globalisation’ will inevitably  involve racial undertones, because it isn’t commonly understood that headline-grabbing crime waves (which again paralleling Italy are conspicuous by their absence) or semi-skilled job competition is driven by white Northerners. This is about setting up a narrative of convenience, and even though the ‘integration contracts’ have now been abandoned, ‘illegal’ immigration is still conflated with asylum seeking, leaving economic migration labelled as an activity relegated to specific social classes and races. Morales and his fellow South American leaders realise this:

Uruguay’s leader Tabare Vazquez said: “Nobody emigrates for fun, they do it out of necessity.”

They’re only partially right – all migration is not undertaken out of necessity, but in the French-led EU it would be the Southern, majority non-white economic migrants who could be criminalised for it.  ‘Protecting from crime’ or ‘protecting from globalisation’, it’s still scapegoating by race.