Senator convicted for racially abusing Italy’s first black minister

An Italian senator who compared a senior black politician to an orangutan has been convicted of racial hate speech.

Senator convicted for racially abusing Italy's first black minister
Roberto Calderoli, the League senator convicted of racial hate speech. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Senator Roberto Calderoli, a senior member of the anti-immigration League party that makes up one half of Italy's governing coalition, received an 18-month suspended sentence on Monday for racist comments directed at Cécile Kyenge, who became Italy's first and only black cabinet minister under a previous government.

In 2013 the senator told a rally that Kyenge – the country's minister of integration at the time – reminded him of an orangutan, “even if I'm not saying she is one”. 

Though the decision handed down by a court in northern Italy won't see Calderoli go to prison, Kyenge called it “an encouraging sentence for all those who fight against racism”.

“That's why I'm satisfied with this development: not only for personal reasons, but also because the [court's] decision confirms that racism can and must be fought by legal means, as well as civil, civic and political ones,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

While Calderoli's comments were widely condemned at the time, the battle for legal justice has proven lengthy. In 2015 his colleagues in the Senate passed a motion granting him immunity from prosecution for racial hate speech, backing his claim that his antagonism towards Kyenge was purely political.

READ ALSO: 'Not racist' to call black person orangutan, Italy's senate decides

Last year, however, Italy's Constitutional Court judged that Calderoli – who remains a serving senator – should be liable for his words.

The senator, from the northern city of Bergamo, has long made inflammatory remarks about immigrants, Muslims and gay people, though none have so far cost him his political career.

Cécile Kyenge in 2013. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

Kyenge, a naturalised Italian born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was subjected to a barrage of racial abuse during her time in office, much of it from elected members of the League. One of the party's members of the European Parliament, Mario Borghezio, was ordered to pay her €50,000 in damages for repeated racial slurs, while local councillor Dolores Valandro was expelled from the party for suggesting that Kyenge should be raped.

Since leaving the Italian government in 2014, she has gone on to serve as a deputy in the European Parliament.

Italy has not had any ministers of colour nor a ministry of integration since then. The last election saw the senate gain its first ever black senator: Toni Iwobi, a member of the League, who ran alongside Calderoli in Bergamo.

READ ALSO: Italy elects its first black senator: Toni Iwobi of the League

Photo: Gian Mattia D'Alberto/AFP