Italian mayor who helped migrants gets 13-year prison sentence

Domenico “Mimmo” Lucano, the high-profile former mayor of a southern Italian town, on Thursday received a prison sentence of 13 years and two months for criminal acts relating to immigration.

Domenico Lucano participates in a march against racism in Rome on November 10, 2018
Domenico Lucano participates in a march against racism in Rome on November 10, 2018. Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Lucano became renowned in recent years for welcoming migrants to his village of Riace in the southern region of Calabria to counter a gradual decline in inhabitants and workers.

The so-called “Riace model” won international acclaim as one of Italy’s most successful integration projects.

Under the programme, Riace’s abandoned houses were restored, artisan shops were opened and the tourists flocked to see a place where foreigners made up over 20 percent of its 1,800 inhabitants.

READ ALSO: After mayor’s arrest, Italy’s model migrant town struggles to survive

Lucano was even named one of the 100 most influential personalities by Fortune magazine in 2016 and inspired a docu-fiction by Wim Wenders.

But in October 2018 Lucano was arrested and charged with promoting illegal immigration and other acts of administrative wrongdoing.

At that time Italy was under a coalition government led by the populist Five Star Movement and the anti-immigration League, with hardline League leader Matteo Salvini in the role of deputy prime minister and interior minister.

Salvini, who remains at the head of the League but is no longer in office, accused Lucano of seeking to “replace Italians with Africans”. 

Salvini is himself now standing trial on ‘kidnapping’ charges for refusing to allow a migrant rescue ship to disembark on Italian soil, and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

The case against Lucano is seen by many commentators as a politicised effort to make an example of those who try to assist migrants in Italy.

The 13-year sentence handed down to the former mayor is almost double that of the seven years and 11 months recommended by prosecutors, reports the news daily Corriere della Sera.

Lucano has also reportedly been ordered to repay €500,000 in funding received from the European Union and the Italian government for his projects.

 “It’s an exorbitant conviction that totally goes against the evidence… (it is) totally incomprehensible and unjustified,” lawyers Giuliano Pisapia and Andrea Daqcua said.

“More than 13 years in prison for a man like Mimmo Lucano, who lives in poverty and has had no pecuniary or non-pecuniary advantages from his actions as mayor of Riace… (is) astonishing,” they were quoted as saying by Italian media.

Lucano, who will appeal, “has always been committed to his community and to the reception and integration of children, women and men fleeing war, torture and hunger,” they said.

The Court of Locri found him guilty of fraud, embezzlement and abuse of office, in addition to favouring illegal immigration.

The hashtag #mimmolucano was trending on Twitter on Thursday, with many public figures expressing shock and dismay at the ruling.

“It’s an unjust sentence. We are convinced of his innocence,” tweeted the senator and antimafia journalist Sandro Ruotolo.

Some pointed out that Luca Traini, a far-right extremist who shot at and injured six migrants in 2018, received a lesser sentence of 12 years.

Others have called for protests in solidarity with Lucano.

“I spent my life chasing my anti-mafia ideals. I imagined myself contributing to the redemption of my land. Today it all ends,” Lucano reportedly said in a statement to the press following the judgment.

“It is a very heavy thing.”

In Italy those convicted of a crime have the right to appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Sentences only become definitive after this process is exhausted, which typically takes several years after an initial conviction.

“Reaffirming our trust in the judiciary and underlining the presumption of innocence until the final sentence, ANPI trusts entirely […] in a positive resolution of this very painful judicial matter” the head of the anti-fascist Italian association ANPI wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday.

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Italy’s hard-right PM will not back down on reporter defamation trial

Italian PM Giorgia Meloni said on Tuesday she will not withdraw her defamation suit against anti-mafia reporter Roberto Saviano, despite growing criticism that her position of power might skew the trial in her favour.

Italy's hard-right PM will not back down on reporter defamation trial

On Tuesday, the hard-right leader told Italian daily Corriere della Sera that she was confident the case would be treated with the necessary “impartiality”.

Meloni sued anti-mafia reporter Saviano for alleged defamation after he called her a “bastard” in a 2020 televised outburst over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but took office last month after an electoral campaign that promised to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the trial, which opened earlier in November, to be scrapped.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia reporter on trial for ‘defaming’ Italy’s far-right PM

“I don’t understand the request to withdraw the complaint on the pretext that I am now prime minister,” Meloni said.

“I believe that all this will be treated with impartiality, considering the separation of powers.”

She also added: “I am simply asking the court where the line is between the legitimate right to criticise, gratuitous insult and defamation.”

Saviano, best known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, faces up to three years in prison if convicted.

The case dates back to December 2020 when Saviano was asked on a political TV chat show for a comment on the death of a six-month-old baby from Guinea in a shipwreck.

On the occasion, he railed at Meloni, who in 2019 had said that charity vessels which rescue migrants “should be sunk”.

Saviano is not the only journalist Meloni is taking to trial. One of the country’s best-known investigative reporters, Emiliano Fittipaldi, said last week the prime minister had sued him for defamation.

READ ALSO: Italian PM Meloni takes another investigative reporter to court

That trial is set to start in 2024.

Watchdogs say such trials are symbolic of a culture in Italy in which public figures intimidate reporters with repeated lawsuits, threatening the erosion of a free press.