Evening Standard, 26.7.01

G8 protesters tell of beatings

by Patrick Sawer and Charles Reiss

The Government today demanded a full inquiry into Italy's security operation at the Genoa G8 summit, as British protesters returned with graphic stories of police brutality against them.

The move by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was also spurred by an extraordinary "confession" from one of the police involved, saying his colleagues beat up peaceful demonstrators in revenge for earlier rioting.

His statement seems to confirm claims that police attacked activists as they slept at a school used by the protest organisers. The officer, who took part in the operation in which 90 were arrested, told the centre-left daily newspaper La Repubblica: "They lined them up and banged their heads against the walls. They urinated on one person. They beat people if they didn't sing Facetta Nera (a fascist hymn).

"One girl was vomiting blood but the chief of the squad just looked on. They threatened to rape girls with their batons."

The account drew a swift response - and a marked hardening in tone - from Mr Straw. The Foreign Office said that he had asked Britain's ambassador, Sir John Shepherd, to seek an urgent meeting with Italy's foreign minister, Renato Ruggiero. A spokesman said: "The Foreign Secretary has asked our ambassador to take up this report with the Italian authorities immediately.

"He will be asking for these allegations to be fully investigated. We, of course, take seriously any suggestion that any British citizens may have been mistreated. Our consul has spent the night talking to the Britons who have now been released. Any complaints passed to him will be taken up with the Italian authorities."

Both Tony Blair and Mr Straw have up to now avoided any criticism of the massive security operation at the summit. The Prime Minister in Genoa stressed the difficult job the police had to do and blamed the protection measures on what he earlier called the "anarchist travelling circus". The tougher government line now could bring a diplomatic row with one of Britain's EU partners. The account of the violence from the unnamed Italian police officer was confirmed and amplified by four Britons, who were freed without charge last night and returned to Heathrow today, and by a fifth, Mark Covell, still in hospital in Genoa.

Speaking from his hospital bed, where he is recovering from a collapsed lung, broken ribs and internal and external bruising, 33-year-old Mr Covell said: "I really thought I was dying. It is a horrible thing when you hear your bones breaking inside you." There have been suggestions that Mr Covell, a Londoner, was among the organisers of the earlier riots. However, speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, he denied any part in the violence, saying he had. Mr Covell, in tears at one point, said he was with a media colleague called Sebastian when he was surrounded by hundreds of carabinieri and attacked. He said: "I didn't stand a chance. I was immediately hit over the head. A carabiniere then pushed me up against a wall. I fell over and about 10 carabinieri proceeded to hit me non-stop for about five minutes, kicking and punching me, hitting me with their batons and their shields. There was no mercy.

"Then about 50 carabinieri charged past me. As they did that, each one came running past me and kicked me. Then behind me I heard this van crash through the great gates of  the school. More carabinieri started kicking me for the third time. It was just endless." The four British protesters who flew back today told similar stories. Jonathan Blair, 38, from Newport-and Londoners Daniel McQuillan-35, Richard Moth, 32, and his girlfriend, Nicola Docherty, 27, were deported despite being released without charge and despite reports that an examining magistrate had said they were illegally detained.

Mr McQuillan said: "It was terrible. We could hear the screaming and beating going on. We were grown-up people hiding under desks. There were five or six policemen and one struck me on the head. I rolled on to the floor on my left side and they continued beating us. When they finished beating us they threw what looked like window frames on top of us."

The Britons complained they were kept for 38 hours without food, their possessions seized and repeated requests for contact with lawyers denied. They have been banned from Italy for five years despite not being convicted of any crime.