Italy: Ill-treatment and detention: investigation of the Lampedusa centre

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Ill-treatment and detention: investigation of the Lampedusa centre
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Long periods of detention, ill-treatment, abuses of law in the treatment of migrant children and unaccompanied minors. The handling of foreigners in Lampedusa resulted in allegations framed in very strong terms by the judge for preliminary investigations [gip] in Rome, who asked for the investigation into events at the Sicilian detention centre to remain open: "There is an evident need," states the order dated 2 May 2019 "to carry out territorial inquiries".

Everything began with a measure adopted on 29 March 2017, when the Agrigento prosecutors' office, after undertaking its inquiries, asked for the case to be shelved. However, on 24 August, after the party making the complaint submitted new elements, the Rome gip decided to re-open the case. In fact, the case had reached the capital because there were suspicions that the illegal acts had been ordered by the top ministerial echelons in Rome.

Although the earliest investigations date back to 2011, the Rome gip argues that the irregularity "appears to have continued up to the present day". In the order, judge Anna Maria Gavoni [the Rome gip] declares her territorial incompetence because, for the time being, it has been impossible to identify responsibilities at the top levels. However, the gip's order states that new investigations are necessary:

"The early reception centres for minors are now saturated, with the effect that they [children] are unlawfully left in the hotspots in conditions of promiscuity with adults, in violation of the law".

A year earlier, on 21 May 2018, the president of the Italian judges for preliminary investigations, Fabrizio Gentili, urged "completion of the investigations" whilst complaining of some investigative flaws. The first among these was the failure to hear the national ombudsman for the rights of people detained and denied their personal freedom.

When Mauro Palma [the ombudsman] was eventually heard on 17 September, the Sicilian magistrates repeated that "elements have not emerged that make it possible to found a hypothesis" of crimes that may be attributed to ministerial civil servants or officials. Moreover, the prosecuting magistrate clarified that the statements made by the ombudsman "provided confirmation that no organisational measure of a kind that prejudiced the rights of migrants present in the Lampedusa structure has been issued".

However, some doubts about this were raised in Rome, beginning with the interpretation that Palma's statement should be afforded. In fact, reviewing the acts, the Rome gip discovered that on 20 June 2018 the detainees' ombudsman had submitted declarations "that give rise to elements that make it possible to hypothesize, with foundation, events amounting to offences of omission or abuse of office, and others, by the local authorities".

The juridical lexicon used disguises the disappointment among magistrates. This is because Palma's claims also relate to "recent inspection visits which, therefore, also move back the spectre of the statute of limitations intervening". This means that there is still time left to conduct investigations. The six pages in which judge Anna Maria Gavoni declares her lack of territorial competence and returns the case file to the Agrigento prosecutors' office to carry out further inquiries, detail a number of alleged legal abuses and instances of ill-treatment deemed to be "penally relevant".

In one case, a person "was closed in a room" the judicial act states "and had visible marks on their body that could lead to one thinking about acts of violence." It was an episode that the prosecutors' office chose to shelve, but which the gip deems to require further in-depth examination. After all, Palma had declared that "the situation in the Lampedusa hotspot is dramatic". It is a structure where "people should stay for a maximum of two days (48 hours)", but the length people stay there for is longer, often unspecified, and hence amounting to a state of "arbitrary detention".

Moreover, "the circumstance that people in Lampedusa cannot act in freedom does not result," the ombudsman explained, "from an order or ministerial instruction, but rather, from orders possibly issued by the authorities in the locality" [the prefect (a ministerial envoy with specific competencies for security issues among others) or the questore, local head of police]. This is sufficient for the Agrigento prosecutors' office to try to discover the identity of the public officers responsible for "penally relevant facts committed in Sicilian territory," without interruption until the present date, and from whom they received their orders.

Thanks to this investigation, one of the norms that still allows Italy to be deemed an important reference for western laws on human rights was introduced [law 47/2017 (the Zampa law) on provisions concerning measures for the protection of unaccompanied foreign minors, available here]. In fact, the investigation resulted from a detailed account submitted by lawyer Alessandra Ballerini on behalf of Terre des Hommes and, among others, by Luigi Manconi, who represented the association A Buon Diritto, Sergio Soldini for the CGIL [trade union] and the MP Sandra Zampa, after whom the law for the protection of unaccompanied minors is named. Violations of this law resulted in the opening of further investigations into more recent cases, in which responsibilities that may be assigned to ministerial officials and members of the current government emerge.

Author: Nello Scavo. Originally published on 18 May 2019 in Avvenire newspaper with the title 'Maltrattamenti e detenzioni: inchiesta sul centro di Lampedusa'. Translation by Statewatch.

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