Italy: Interior Ministry directive on demonstrations in urban centres

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On 26 January 2009, the Italian interior affairs minister Roberto Maroni issued a "general directive for public demonstrations" concerning urban centres and "sensitive" areas. The directive invites prefetti (government representatives in charge of security in a city) to exclude certain areas from the reach of demonstrations, envisage guarantees for possible damage that may occur, and set further specifications required for carrying out given demonstrations, in accordance with the mayor and after consulting the provincial committee for public order and security.

The justification mooted for this measure is the "daily succession of public initiatives and demonstrations in cities involving marches" to express "dissent and protests" or to "draw the public opinion's and institutions' attention to problems and proposals". Noting that there is a constitutional right "to gather and demonstrate freely in public space" and that this right must be safeguarded and preserved as a "fundamental expression of democratic life", its exercise must take place while respecting other "constitutionally guaranteed rights and the norms that discipline the orderly functioning of civil coexistence". In large and complex urban centres, the "frequency of demonstrations" often gives rise to critical situations in terms of the orderly running of the city's life so as to limit and affect citizens' rights, such as the right to education, work and mobility. Hence, there is a need to intervene on existing regulations, all the more so as the initiatives take place successively and are concentrated in the main cities in order to seek greater visibility and as they are places where the institutions and political authorities are represented. Safeguarding public order and security must "always" be compatible with the right of assembly and free expression of thought, the directive's premise establishes.

With regards to urban centres, suitable routes and other indications aimed at "regulating" demonstrations must be identified in order to avoid wasting resources and to prevent measures to guarantee mobility from being rendered ineffective. Where regulations and agreements have established "guaranteed time bands" for public transport, a demonstration taking place in those hours may entail the blocking of a city's traffic (even involuntarily), thus undermining the right to free movement. Adopting new criteria to regulate the routes of demonstrations may be a way to address the competing rights in a balanced way, by excluding key areas for mobility or places with artistic importance (such as those recognised by UNESCO as heritage of mankind) or areas that are "specifically protected" from noise pollution, such as hospitals, would be a possible approach, Maroni argues in the directive. A further element to be considered is the urban estate, both public and private, for whose safeguard guarantees involving the responsibility of promoters and organisers may be envisaged.

As for "sensitive areas", the directive notes that article 17 of the Constitution recognises the right of peaceful assembly in the absence of weapons, although the public authorities must be notified in advance and can only forbid them in case of proven security or public safety reasons. The unified text of laws on public security (Testo Unico delle Leggi di Pubblica Sicurezza, TULPS) establishes that the questore (police chief) must be given three days' notice and may forbid the assembly or prohibit it at given times or in given places, if the prescribed notice is not given or there are reasons of "public order, morality or public health". The same norms apply to religious functions, ceremonies, practices, and to ecclesiastical or civil processions, and the questore may also prescribe that specified modalities be respected for public order or public health reasons, informing organisers at least 24 hours earlier. Article 30 of TULPS also establishes that written authorisation from the competent authority may be required to pass through specified public areas, with the questore entrusted to use his discretion as to whether a demonstration complies with public order and public security requirements, on the basis of factual elements, time and location. Such an assessment will be applied as regards areas where there are critical targets, for which limitations of access will have to be set.

In defining criteria to direct the decisions to be adopted by competent prefetti and questori, "the need to limit the access to certain particularly sensitive areas, especially when the demonstrations involve a high number of participants" is highlighted in the directive. These "sensitive areas" will be defined on the basis of their symbolic character for "social, cultural or religious reasons (for example, cathedrals, basilicae or other important places of worship)", or those that experience a considerable influx of people (even in normal circumstances) or in which critical targets are found. The limits will be especially applicable when there have been demonstrations in the past with the same subjects and organisation that have disrupted public order and security.

The measures were deemed necessary as a result of the many student, workers and political demonstrations that have been taking place, particularly in Rome, in response to reforms, collective contractual negotiations, dismissals from employment (with the case of former Alitalia airline employees particularly relevant, as some undertakings agreed during the transition for the company to be taken over by a consortium and be re-named CAI -Compagnia Aerea Italiana- have not been respected, leaving them without payments that they had been guaranteed; they responded by blocking the motorway access to Fiumicino airport on 12 February) and other issues, often blocking or disrupting traffic in parts of the city centre. A further development was during a demonstrations in Milan on 3 January 2009 against the Israeli attacks in Gaza when, apart from the now usual controversy over the burning of Israeli flags by protesters, many Muslims on the march stopped to pray in the square in front of the Duomo cathedral, the city's religious and symbolic centre (as also happened in front of the San Petronio basilica in Bologna). Although similar open air prayers occurred in many European cities in response to the scale of the killings without particular reactions, members of the Italian government now view such conduct as a "provocation" to the host country's population (especially outside of a Catholic cathedral), in accordance with opposition by some of its components (particularly Maroni's own Lega Nord party) to the building of new mosques and their calls for increasingly strict conditions to be imposed on religious (generally Muslim) bodies and organisations to operate in Italy. Days later, in response to the outrage, the presidents of two Milan-based Muslim associations (the Casa della Cultura Islamica and the Istituto Culturale Islamico) met representatives of the Milan diocese to deny that the initiative had any provocative intent and to express regret if anyone's sensitivity had been hurt.

It is also noteworthy that mention of sites of worship and of cultural/artistic importance is included in the directive, which, if interpreted expansively, would give prefetti and questori a very wide discretion to prohibit demonstrations in the capital and other historic cities - for instance, there several hundred churches in Rome, and Italy is the country that has the largest number of UNESCO sites identified as part of the cultural heritage of mankind (43), sometimes encompassing areas as large as "the historic centre of Rome", as is also the case for Florence, Naples, Siena, San Gimignano, Urbino and Pienza, parts of Genoa, and the cities of Venice, Mantua, Syracuse, Assisi, Ragusa, Ferrara, Vicenza, among others. Also, if so-called "sensitive sites" are to include embassies, stations and airports, for example [listed as potential targets when the deployment of soldiers was decreed in July 2008], it is unlikely that demonstrations will be able to take place anywhere where they can have any impact at all. Cinzia Gubbini of Il manifesto newspaper has reported some of the first effects of the directive: demonstrations along their historic routes in the historic centre of Bologna have been forbidden from 2 p.m. on Saturdays and the whole of Sundays until September 2009; in Verona, permission will be granted on a case-by-case basis, with the option of requesting a deposit from organisers examined, after the sale of eggs and flour was forbidden in supermarkets on the day of the carnival parade (when children traditionally throw them at each other, inevitably "soiling" the UNESCO-protected city centre); and in Palermo, a CGIL trade union official was notified that he is under investigation for standing on the sidewalk in front of the prefettura (office of the prefetto), something that had always happened during protests, but has now been forbidden.


Text of the directive, available in the Osservatorio sulla Repressione website (in Italian)
Italy: Deployment of armed forces to guarantee security in cities, Statewatch news online, July 2008
Milan Diocese communications office, 9.2.2009;
Il Messaggero, 12.2.2009;
Il manifesto, 28.2.2009.

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