Italy: Deaths and demonstrations spotlight detention centres

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Statewatch bulletin, vol 10 no 1 (January-February 2000)

The death of six detainees in Italy's immigrant detention centres has led to demonstrations in Milan, Florence and Trapani calling for the closure of the centres - first introduced in Italy in 1998. Mohamed Ben Said, a Tunisian, died in Rome's Ponte Galeria centre due to a lack of medical care and five more detainees died in a fire during a revolt in the Serraino Vulpitta in Trapani (Sicily).

Protests against the centres

Over 20,000 people demonstrated in Milan on 29 January, calling for "a full review of the migration policy adopted to date, the closure of all prison camps for immigrants currently opened in Italy, respect of the rights of free information for the public and of legal assistance for the imprisoned migrants and the issuing of reliable data about the migration phenomena... " They also asked for independent monitoring groups to be allowed to enter the centres by law, as the secrecy which surrounds detention centres is a major reason for abuse.

After minor clashes between the police and demonstrators in Milan a group of 50 people were allowed to enter the Corelli detention centre. In Trapani two and three thousand people demonstrated and police attacked demonstrators who were trying to break into the Serraino Vulpitta centre. In Genoa's Principe train station people who were making their way to Milan for the demonstration were caught on a video showing police charging into people who were simply negotiating to have a cheap "political" train fare.

Interior Minister Enzo Bianco and Interior Ministry undersecretary Alberto Maritati accepted criticism of the detention centres in terms of their conditions, but were adamant that the detention centre system was imperfect but necessary. They confirmed plans to extend the network of detention centres, "at the moment, the reception centres are concentrated in a few regions, and it will therefore be necessary to redistribute them around the country". Centres are due to open in Florence and Bologna. Tuscany's first detention centre is due to open in Sesto Fiorentino (Florence), although the local and regional councils are opposed to the project. A second round of demonstrations on 26 February brought 4,000 people onto the streets in Rome, and protesters in Bologna twice entered an abandoned army barracks which is due to be transformed into a detention centre in August.

The Interior Ministry has replaced the chief constable in Florence, Antonio Ruggiero. He was seen as being "soft" on immigrants having allowed a group of Romanians and other immigrants under threat of expulsion to lead the rally in Florence without any threat of identification or arrest. The 17 Romanian families were involved in an "integration through work" project sponsored by local (Lucca) and regional (Tuscany) councils to regularise their status, as proposed in the Turco-Napolitano law - with former Interior Minister Rosa Russo Jervolino's approval. The government coalition changed in December, and the new Interior Minister, Bianco, stopped the project. The Romanians decided to occupy San Michele church in Lucca, and started a week's hunger strike, with support from the public and local clergy, resulting in their being granted residence permits.

The Turco-Napolitano law

There are 11 official detention centres set up following the 1998 Turco-Napolitano immigration law. They are the Brunelleschi in Turin, Arcangelo Corelli in Milan, Ponte Galeria in Rome, Badessa and Medelugno in Lecce, Serraino Vulpitta in Trapani, Francavilla Fontana (Brindisi), Catania (shut for restructuring work), Termini Imerese (Palermo), Ragusa and Lamezia Terme (Catanzaro). They are mainly found in the south, or larger cities in the north (Milan, Turin) and centre (Rome). Police are in charge of external security, whereas members of the military Red Cross are in charge of the internal running of the centre - though there have been numerous reports of police intervention within the centres during quarrels between inmates or revolts.

The Turco-Napolitano law decrees that the chief constable can decide to detain foreigners "in the nearest temporary detention and assistance centre for the time which is strictly necessary" in cases where expulsion cannot immediately be carried out, due to the foreigners' need for assistance or because further checks are needed regarding their nationality or identity. Magistrates must approve the detention order within 48 hours, and this can lead to detention for a maximum of 20 days; the police chief may extend this period by 10 days, on request to a magistrate.

Article 14.2 of the law on immigration says: "The foreigner is detained in the centre in such a way as to ensure the necessary assistance and the full respect of his/her dignity. Apart from what is provided for in Article 2.6" (that entry, residence or expulsion decisions be translated into a language which their recipients understand) "in every case, the freedom to communicate with the exterior, including by telephone, must be ensured."

The death of Mohamed Ben Said

On Christmas night, Mohamed Ben Said, a 39-year-old Tunisian who had been detained in Rome's Ponte Galeria centre near Fiumicino airport for 14 days, died due to lack of medical attention. He was a drug addict and had been visibly ill for days according to other detainees, "sometimes his jaw and tongue got so swollen that he could hardly breath". He was treated with Minias, a powerful tranquilliser which is reportedly incompatible with heroin addiction but is the customary medication for most ailments in Ponte Galeria. Despite several visits by members of the Red Cross working in the centre, he was never taken to hospital.

Said should never have been detained in the first place as he had been married to Mrs Piras, a Genoese woman, with whom he had a child. He could not be expelled under the law but was nonetheless illegally detained for 14 days so that immigration authorities could check his position. Detainees in the centre and the Red Cross have suggested that Mohamed Ben Said may have had his marriage certificate on him and that they had seen it although police deny this. A police officer, who requested anonymity, told Il Manifesto "A Tunisian married to an Italian woman..... if he didn't die, he would surely have been released with many apologies."

Many detained then released

In 1999, 11,269 immigrants were held in the detention centres, 3,987 of whom were repatriated following their detention, and 6,773 of whom were released without repatriation, according to Italian press agency Ansa. Of the 979 people interned in January 2000, 157 were released without expulsion, suggesting that many immigrants should not have been detained. Interior Ministry figures indicate that of 8,947 detainees in 1999, 1,116 should not have been detained because they had a residence permit, had requested asylum or refuge, were ill or pregnant. In 348 cases, magistrates refused to validate detentions. Fabrizio Gatti, a journalist for Corriere della Sera carried out an investigation which involved him posing as a Romanian, "Roman Ladu". He was detained by the immigration authorities, and reported the routine abuse suffered by detainees. This included being denied the right to communicate with the outside (by telephone), slaps, threats and the denial of ordinary defence rights. He gives an account of an officer trying to make him sign an arrest report saying that he renounces the right to call a lawyer.

Mohamed Ben Said's case is exemplary of the way in which the establishment of detention centres has allowed the creation of what the "Immigration" group Magistratura Democratica (Democratic Magistrates) calls a "special law regime" for foreigners. Foreigners, they say, are deprived of their personal freedom without having committed a crime, and are denied judicial protection. In spite of illegal entry and illegal residence not being a criminal offence in Italy, the stereotype of the "irregular immigrant" is now portrayed as a dangerous subject who should be kept in custody. A report by Avvenimenti on Rome's Ponte Galeria detention centre in September 1999 states that: "None of the immigrants who are held in the detention centre has pending legal charges against them, none has been caught "in the act of committing a crime"."

Five deaths after fire

On 28 December, there was a rebellion in the Serraino Vulpitta centre in Trapani, where up to 15 immigrants share a cell. A Tunisian internee, Fqih Lakhder, set mattresses on fire which resulted in the immediate death of 3 detainees - 2 more died some days later in hospital from burns. A door which was supposed to be open had been locked from the outside, probably due to frequent rioting and protesting in the previous days, and an escape attempt the night before. Rescue attempts at 2am were hindered by the absence of running water in the section and 3 men died of asphyxia. Trapani public prosecutors are investigating and Fqih Lakhder, who was desperate to escape, had previous convictions and had been expelled from Italy more than once. He may be charged with multiple murder, arson and grievous bodily harm.

Critics demand radical rethink

After a visit to Rome's Ponte Galeria centre Giovanni Russo Spena, Rifondazione Comunista (RC) senator, expressed two major concerns. Firstly, he relates that Red Cross staff members told him "of the problems, the staff shortages, an infirmary which has a skeleton staff" and of their discomfort at the excessive role played by the military in running the centre. In Ponte Galeria, the infirmary is open 6 hours every day, rather than the statutory 24 hours, and the Red Cross units, which by law should number 11, are constituted by 4 members. Secondly, he said that the centres are shrouded in secrecy - when he visited the centre he had to do so alone without his assistants - who would have been allowed to visit a jail. An appeal was launched and signatures were collected to demand access to the centres for "associations, journalists and, most importantly, lawyers who, at the moment, can only intervene if they are named by an imprisoned foreigner".

Following the fire in Trapani, government offered to let charities take part in the administration of the centres. They replied that they wanted to play no part due to the illegal detention of internees, whom the Italian government refers to as "guests". Ya Basta, a grassroots organisation have been monitoring Milan's Corelli detention centre. From September, they were granted access to the centre to interview a small number of detainees for between an hour every Wednesday. They would inform detainees about their legal position, take up appeals against illegal detentions, help to retrieve documents and report on detainees' conditions and accounts. On 1 December, Ya Basta members were expelled from the centre, because they had brought a journalist from Radio Onda d'Urto (a critical radio station) into the centre and because they found out about an Algerian detainee, Youssef Magry. He had cut himself with a razor blade which he later swallowed to delay his deportation to Morocco. After a further act of rebellion, when he climbed onto the centre's roof threatening to jump off it, Magry was released with an order to leave the country within two weeks.

Giuliano Pisapia, MP for RC and a lawyer, stressed that the detention centres are unconstitutional in an interview to Corriere della Sera, citing articles 13 and 24 of the Constitution. Article 13 forbids the limiting of personal freedom unless charged with a crime, undergoing an investigation or being the author of a crime. Article 24 refers to the right to defend oneself, and Pisapia claims that he has witnessed the violation of this right. He says some of the dangers are intrinsic to the regime. People who have the documents needed to avoid expulsion were unable to retrieve them once they are locked up in the detention centres. If they are released without being expelled after 30 days the detention may mean the loss of a job or friends they had previously. Pisapia suggests that immigrants should be detained for no more than 48 hours. He added, "many guests in these centres have given me names of people and documents which could demonstrate their right to remain in Italy. And it is the duty of a democratic state to carry out the checks quickly: it's not as if, because it's difficult, constitutional rights can be violated."

Even formal legal procedures are sometimes disregarded as shown by a report on Il Manifesto of a Ghanain citizen, deported before a hearing which a judge had scheduled following his lawyer's complaint that his client was not informed of his legal position. Ya Basta members reported the case of a Romanian woman who was detained despite possessing a visa for Switzerland which gave her access to the Schengen area.

The tragedies in Ponte Galeria and the Serraino Vulpitta have led to public scrutiny of detention centres which were previously run on an extremely secretive basis. The denial of defence and personal rights within the centres and the arrest of people who have not committed a crime breaches basic rights enshrined in the Italian Constitution. The debate, and the willingness of politicians, lawyers, grassroots organisations and members of the public to challenge the Interior Ministry may prevent similar tragedies, an improvement of conditions and a radical rethinking of the detention policy itself.

Sources: Avvenimenti, 17.9.99, 26.12.99 Corriere della Sera, 30.12.99, 6.1.00, 30.1.00, 25.2.00, Il Manifesto 25-27.11.99, 1.12.99, 25.12.99, 29-31.12.99, 29.1.00, 31.1.00, 6.2.00, 8.2.00, 10-17.2.00, 23.2.00, Repubblica, 31.1, 8.2.00,, Giuliano Acunzoli communiques, 2.12.99, 7.1, 13.1, 18.1, 23.1, 26.1, 31.1, La legge Turco-Napolitano, 25.7.98, no 286.

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