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Ilaria Salis: Italian activist goes on trial in Hungary assault case

AFP
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Ilaria Salis: Italian activist goes on trial in Hungary assault case
Ilaria Salis arrives in court in Budapest on March 28th, 2024 ahead her trial. Salis was arrested in February 2023 and charged with attempted assault and accused of being part of an extreme left-wing organisation. (Photo by Attila KISBENEDEK / AFP)

An Italian teacher accused of attacking alleged neo-Nazis in Hungary was to go on trial in a Budapest court on Friday, in a case that has sparked tensions between Rome and Budapest.

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The case of Ilaria Salis, 39, has been front-page news in Italy after she appeared in court in January handcuffed and chained, with her feet shackled.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni enjoys cordial relations with Hungary's Viktor Orban but the case has caused bilateral tensions, with Rome making official complaints on behalf of Salis.

The teacher from Monza, near Milan, was arrested in Budapest in February last year.

Prosecutors allege Salis travelled to Budapest specifically to carry out the attacks against "unsuspecting victims identified as or perceived as far-right sympathisers" to deter "representatives of the far-right movement".

She was charged with three counts of attempted assault and accused of being part of an extreme left-wing criminal organisation in the wake of a counter-demonstration against an annual neo-Nazi rally.

Salis denies the charges - which could see her jailed for up to 11 years - and claims that she is being persecuted for her political beliefs.

A defiant Salis told Italian newspaper La Stampa via her father in an interview published last week that she was "on the right side of history".

On Friday, one of the victims and witnesses of one of the attacks are scheduled to testify, according to one of Salis's Hungarian legal representatives.

Lawyer Gyorgy Magyar complained to AFP ahead of the trial that Salis has not yet received all the case documents in "her native language".

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"The translators promised to finish translating the documents in November, but until that (is done) she will not give any substantial testimony, and rightfully so," he added.

Salis spent more than 15 months behind bars, but on Thursday was moved to house arrest on a 16 million forints (around 41,000 euros) bail, according to her father Roberto Salis.

Protesters in Milan hold a banner reading "Bring Ilaria Salis home" during a demonstration demanding Salis's release from prison and against detention conditions in Hungary. (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

She might be freed before any verdict is rendered on her case, if she is elected as a Member of the European Parliament.

Last month, the Italian Green and Left Alliance (AVS) nominated her as their lead candidate for the upcoming European elections.

If the party garners enough votes at the ballot, Salis might be eligible to access parliamentary immunity, leading to the suspension of the criminal proceedings against her.

Politicised case

The case of Ilaria Salis has been highly politicised, with the Hungarian government frequently commenting on it.

Salis's father has accused the Hungarian authorities of double standards, claiming that they treated neo-Nazis, who allegedly assaulted anti-fascist activists around the same time, much more leniently.

"In this country, those people are considered patriots while anti-fascists are enemies of the state," Roberto Salis told AFP.

He claims that his daughter was kept in inhumane prison conditions until January when her case received significant media coverage.

"For eight days, she was kept in a prison in a solitary cell, without being provided with toilet paper, sanitary towels, and soap.

"During that period, she would have needed the sanitary towels... in Italy, we would consider this torture," Roberto Salis said.

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The Council of Europe has criticised Hungary's overcrowded prisons.

According to Eurostat, Hungary in 2022 recorded the highest prisoner rate per 100,000 people in the EU, followed by Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Hungarian officials have denied accusations of ill-treatment.

Prime Minister Orban's nationalist government has repeatedly denounced the media for allegedly depicting Salis as a "martyr", instead pointing to what it called the "brutality" of her alleged crimes.

"What we see here, in a quite outrageous case, is someone committing a brutal and public crime, and the European far-left is standing up for her and even trying to make her an MEP," Orban's chief of staff Gergely Gulyas said on Thursday.

"It is incompatible with everything we see as European values, human decency and the necessity of punishing crimes," he added.

Salis's father has complained that the Italian government has provided only "limited" help to his daughter.

Italy's Ambassador to Hungary is expected to attend the trial on Friday, the embassy told AFP.

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