Photo taken in the Torture Museum in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, by Orlando Crowcroft
Retired Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz once wrote that “all forms of torture are widespread among nations that have signed treaties prohibiting torture.” Italy is no exception. It might seem strange, but there is still no specific anti-torture legislation in that country.
On March 5th, the Italian Senate tried to fix this by approving—with231 votes in favor and three abstentions—a bill that criminalizes torture. The measure, which will have to be evaluated by Italy's lower legislative body, the Chamber of Deputies, comes 26 years after Italy's ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
While the bill was enthusiastically received by various politicians, many (including its first signatory, Senator Luigi Manconi of the center-left Democratic Party) expressed “serious doubts and dissatisfaction with the text.” The Union of Criminal Chambers, the main association of criminal lawyers in Italy, called it a “bungled solution” and defined the act of introducing torture as a common crime instead of a crime strictly related to police forces as a “big mistake."
Italian police union SIAP also heavily criticized the bill: Secretary General Pasquale di Maria said that it “enforces a serious and absurd imbalance,” but also exposes police forces to the risk of being sentenced to “life imprisonment.” According to Pasquale di Maria, this happened thanks to “the support of certain politicians,” who have no regard for the “hundreds of injured among police forces and citizens,” in order to please the “demonstration professionals.”
But focusing on complaints can often distract us from the issues at hand. In a bid to better understand how we got here, I called Patrizio Gonnella, president of the Antigone Association, an organization for rights within the Italian penal system, and author of the book Torture in Italy.
VICE: What is your opinion on the torture bill recently approved by the Italian Senate? Can we consider this law satisfying?
Patrizio Gonnella: It is still too soon to tell. The satisfying thing is that one more step was made toward this juridical, political, and constitutional goal. For many years it seemed feasible, but in practice it was never accomplished.
The worrying thing is that it’s still considered a “generic” crime—namely a crime that can be committed by anyone, even in a context different to that of legal custody, which is where torture mainly occurs. The parliamentary debate saw references to many different contexts—organized crime or domestic violence, for example—as if torture were just a simple degeneration of private life. But torture in history represents a kind of “justice,” which exists in the realm of extracting confessions for unjustified purposes, or as a manifestation of a punishing power.
It seems like both politics and public opinion dismiss the issue of torture—as if it were something unrelated to Italy.
This is a crucial point in any democracy: No country can consider itself—or can ever remain—immune to the risk of institutional violence. Nobody can do this because torture is part of a democracy’s pathology. In order to be immune to it we have to call things by their proper name, without fear. Living in a strong democracy does not mean removing the issue—it means being able to take on the problem, recognizing it, and dealing with it.
Why did we only get a bill like this now?
The reason behind the absence of such a law can be found in the personalization of politics, based on permanent electoral campaigns and leaders who wander in the pursuit of consensus. Strong pressure is also exercized indirectly and in a concealed manner by big Italian security organizations that include both police forces and some police unions.
Many cases of torture occurred in police custody. Could the approval of a serious law against the crime of torture lead to a reform of the prison system?
The application of case law is crucial in this case. If there isn't a trial or sentence in the next few years, despite the sentencings, this kind of behavior will probably be allowed again and again. If case law is applied on the other hand, attitudes could change.
On an international level, how did the perception of torture change in Western societies after 9/11?
The US has reopened the debate on the matter of torture’s legitimacy. There have been attempts to legitimize forms of “light torture” as well (like those by the US Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney), but in the end both the Patriot Act and the European anti-terrorism legislation did not actually succeed in undermining the internationally codified principles. Things have gotten more complicated since 2001. Clearly there has been an involution within the debate, but it could have been much worse.