Roberto Calderoli sparked outrage in July 2013 with his comments about Cecile Kyenge, then Italy's integration minister:
He said: “When I see Kyenge I can't help but think of an orangutan.”
A member of the far-right Northern League (Lega Nord) party, Calderoli refused a call from Italy's sitting prime minister, Enrico Letta, to step down and the deputy senate president has remained in his post ever since.
His “I'm not racist” position has now won the backing of senators, who ruled that the orangutan comment does not amount to racial hate.
The move was supported by Kyenge's Democratic Party (PD), with only the Five Star Movement (M5S) opposing, La Repubblica reported on Friday.
Kyenge, who lost her ministerial position when Matteo Renzi became premier a year ago, said she was “surprised” and “sad” about the ruling.
While she had forgiven Calderoli for the slur, Kyenge worried about the broader impact of the Senate decision: “If a person who represents the institutions can insult anybody, I ask: who protects the weak [members of society] in this country? It's creating a very dangerous precedent.”
Far-right politicians are “taking advantage of the [economic] crisis”, capitalizing on citizens' fear and “looking for someone to blame”, Kyenge told La Repubblica.
“A lot of parties are consciously doing this to divide society. I regret the lack of courage of the political class and the institutions,” she said.
As integration minister, Kyenge was repeatedly subjected to racist attacks, some of which she is still pursuing through the Italian courts. One Northern League politician was recently fined €150,000, for posting a photograph of Kyenge with an orangutan's face on Facebook.
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