Translated by Colin Gordon.
First publication in Il Manifesto, 19 September 2023.
Translator’s note. The arrest and prosecution of the internationally celebrated asylum welcome pioneer and Calabrian village mayor Mimmo Lucano dates from 2018. Its story has been told in North East Bylines in a series of articles by Giovanna Procacci. The case has provoked a sustained international wave of protest and support actions. In November 2022, Lucano was honoured with the award of a medal by the city of Marseille. The short film Il Volo (2010) by Wim Wenders, starring Ben Gazzara is based on the story of Riace. Luigi Ferrajoli is an emeritus law professor in Rome, a former judge and one of Italy’s leading jurists. Prof. Ferrajoli contributed the introduction to a collective volume co-edited and co-authored by Giovanna Procaci on the Riace case, Processo alla solidarietà. La giustizia e il caso Riace. (Castelvecchi, 2023); see also here.
Our thanks to Il Manifesto and Luigi Ferrajoli for their kind permission to translate.
Tomorrow [20 September 2023] the hearing resumes in Reggio di Calabria of the appeal against the first-instance conviction and sentence, on 30 September 2021, of the former mayor of Riace (Calabria) to 13 years and two months of imprisonment.
In recent years a new penal stereotype has been created by populist demagogy: the crime of solidarity. People who rescue migrants at sea, people who give work to an illegal immigrant, or offer a migrant a rented house where they can live in decent conditions, are the new category of criminals created by emergency laws.
This is a reversal of the logic of an older penal populism: these are no longer the aggravated penalties, pointless yet legally valid, imposed on formally illegal acts committed by the hungry and desperate. The new populism instead criminalises virtuous acts of assistance with senseless measures that are themselves of dubious legality, such as the blockading of ports, the denial of rescue, and collective administrative sanctions.
The key target of this novel penal strategy is Mimmo Lucano, whose appeal hearing against his first-instance conviction and sentence by a court in Locri, Calabria on 30 September 2021 to 13 years and two months of imprisonment continues tomorrow. As is well known, the charges against him concern the fact that Lucano, as mayor of Riace, revived this small township, built a public oil press and a school, transformed two horrendous landfills into an open-air theatre, a children’s playground and a set of training smallholdings and, above all, created – this is the most serious fault – a model of integration and welcome of hundreds of migrants.
But this extraordinary prosecution is much more than an indictment of solidarity. What it wants to put on trial and condemn, even to the extent of an absurd sentence of over 13 years of imprisonment, is not only migrant welcome and human solidarity, but more generally a policy and administration guided by the constitutional values of personal equality and dignity and, which for this very reason, is stigmatized as false and not credible.
There is a revealing phrase in the Locri judges’ justification of their sentence, on top of the mass of their insults against the accused: the lack of evidence of Lucano’s corrupt self-enrichment via his welcome policy, the judges write, is due to “his cunning, disguised as false innocence”, attested by his house being “deliberately kept in a humble state to mask more convincingly the ongoing illegal activity”.
Here we are not only in the presence of a twisted logic, characteristic of every inquisitorial process: assuming from the start the truth of the accusation, believing all and only what appears to confirm it, while everything that refutes it is the result of calculated deceits and simulations. Not only is this a typical case of something the great 18the-century jurist Cesare Beccaria denounced, a form of trial which is “offensive” rather than “informative”, and where “the judge becomes an enemy of the accused” and “does not seek the truth of the fact, but seeks the crime in the prisoner”. This type of procedure is being used here to discredit as unthinkable and not credible the civil and moral virtues of hospitality, disinterest and generosity.
It is the same prejudice that underlies the rules that punish those who rescue migrants at sea. It is unthinkable that these people devote time and money only to generous acts, that they do not have dirty interests, that they are not in some way in collusion with those who organize the escape of these desperate people from their countries. Because selfishness and cheating are taken to be the norm. Because there is always an ulterior motive. In short, it was necessary to defame and discredit Riace’s model of welcome, because Riace showed there is an alternative to the cruel and inhuman policies implemented by our governments and administrations. Because the Riace model, by the mere fact of having been successfully implemented, is a grave indictment of those policies. Anyone who has been to Riace can testify to this. And the appeal judges above all, before they judge, should know this: they should go to Riace and see, with their own eyes, what Lucano was able to achieve in his small community.
Lucano’s freedom now depends on the verdict of the appeal court in this incredible case. But his reputation will certainly not be decided there, since Lucano has become an undisputed symbol, at an international level, not only of good reception policies but also of good administration. It is the reputation and credibility of our justice system which depend on this verdict. Over and above the grave legal issue of the unfounded accusations against Lucano – above all the lack of evidence of fraud, attested by the very wire-taps quoted in the judges’ arguments, which document Lucano’s constant preoccupation with acting for the public good – we will learn from the appeal judges’ decision whether they will choose to take sides with a national agenda of civil and moral misinformation spreading the idea that goodwill and virtue are not credible or possible, but are only hypocritical simulations, that the inhumanity of institutions is just and inevitable and that we can all continue to tolerate it, or rather to condone and practice it, in compliant indifference.