Solidarity on trial: the anatomy of a political trial

Mimmi Lucano

A spreading wave of international outrage has been generated by the stunningly severe sentences meted out on 30 September by a court in Southern Italy to Domenico Lucano, the internationally celebrated creator of a novel model of migrant and asylum welcome in his native town, Riace, and to seventeen of his co-workers. Giovanna Procacci, a professor of sociology at Milan University, took on a new role as citizen journalist and travelled over a two-year period to Calabria to follow and regularly document the conduct of what she compellingly describes as a political trial, part of a set of developments which are raising troubling concerns about the rule of law, Europe and the stability of Italian and European democracy.

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From the beginning, the criminal trial that opened on 11 June 2019 in the Calabrian town of Locri, in which the defendants were Domenico Lucano, mayor of the nearby commune of Riace, and 26 people who had worked with him in the Riace refugee welcome system, looked like a very particular kind of legal proceeding. It opened in a town apparently under quasi-military occupation, with an imposing deployment of security police, supposedly to protect the court – something never before seen in this region, even in major trials of ‘ndrangheta gangsters. Moreover, both the Ministry of the Interior and the provincial Prefecture of Reggio Calabria made themselves parties to the trial as co-plaintiffs, again something unusual even in trials against the ‘ndrine.

I had the distinct feeling that in this criminal trial, which looked so disproportionate in terms of any possible deviations in Riace from the administrative guidelines of systems for migrant and refugee reception, a much bigger issue was at stake. It seemed to me that this trial was a transposal into criminal legal terms of a harsh new turn in Italian immigration policy, initiated first by Marco Minniti (Democratic Party  Minister of the Interior in the Gentiloni government from December 2016 to June 2018), and then more openly by the Liga-5 Star populist coalition government (June 2018 -September 2019), with Matteo Salvini as its Interior Minister.

Their new policy of criminalising migrant welcome seemed to be coming to a spectacular climax in this show-trial of the misdeeds of the person previously regarded as the architect of a positive Italian model of asylum and migrant welcome. In a word, it looked me that what was about to take place was a political trial.

If this was so, then it became important not to leave this event in the obscurity of a provincial courtroom in Locri. It may be difficult outside Italy to realize how distant Calabria is from the attention of Italian public opinion; no national newspaper even gives this region regular news coverage. One felt that a political trial like this should not be left to the reporting of the local press, nor even only to that of ‘expert’ commentators. It was important to give voice to a different viewpoint, that of the ordinary citizen. Because no citizen who shares with Lucano the values ​​of welcome and solidarity, of respect for human rights – the polar opposite of Salvini’s ideology of ‘Italians first’ -, could feel indifferent to what was happening in that courtroom. This trial needed some form of citizen monitoring, bringing the event into open daylight, bringing informed public attention to a trial which was not otherwise guaranteed to benefit from adequate visibility and media interest.

And so I began travelling to Locri, at often as Covid-19 allowed, and thanks to Pressenza, an International online press agency, I was able to publish my coverage of the trial in a series of reports, all now available on its website. It is on the basis of this personal experience that I write here about this trial, without seeking to eliminate the subjective element in the evaluations that I formed over these long months of observation. Whatever the final verdict, my goal was to encourage public discussion of what exactly was being put on trial, what the prosecutors were trying to delegitimize, what acts they were labelling as crimes, and what ideas they were stigmatising as illegal, in the light of my own conviction that these acts and ideas are indispensable to our freedom.

The Locri Trial

As I describe in my previous article, the trial was preceded by a series of official inspections conducted in Riace from the second half of 2016 onwards, and by a subsequent criminal investigation conducted by the Financial Police that lasted for more than a year, until the end of 2017.

In the first months of the trial, the court heard the SPRAR and CAS programme officials reporting the results of their inspections, in terms of the compliance or non-compliance of Riace’s welcome services with administrative regulations. These findings were not consistent: some reports were very critical, another on the contrary was very positive. All the reports however raised some concerns about incomplete documentation, a lack of demarcation between different programmes, overstaying of migrants, inaccurate reporting, and the like – in other words, lapses from guidelines, administrative shortcomings. Furthermore, all officials agreed about two important points.

First, they all recognized that massive refugee arrivals on Italian coasts in the years 2014-2016 had put the official welcome institutions under heavy pressure, and that as a consequence they had urgently asked the Riace services to suddenly accept far more refugees than in previous years; Riace for its part never refused to accept anyone (hence, the nickname ‘Saint Lucano’). This was a crucial point: the responsibility of the State for the increased number of refugees sent to Riace,  creating an emergency situation that easily resulted in the kinds of shortcomings reported by the  inspectors. Which makes it difficult, to say the least, to understand the decision taken by the Prefecture and Ministry of the Interior to co-sponsor this prosecution as plaintiffs; during the trial, the issue of State responsibility and of the crucial help provided by Riace’s welcome services was confirmed by officials as well as defence witnesses. Second, it was generally agreed that none of the inspections had found that any irregularities had been sources of personal profit; on the contrary, they recognized that it was only for humanitarian reasons that Lucano had refused to send people away once their period of funded support came to an end.

After these reports, the trial continued with a year-long presentation of the prosecution’s criminal charges relating to the management of welcome services, through the testimony of Colonel Nicola Sportelli of the Financial Police, who coordinated the criminal investigation. Throughout these hearings, there persisted an incongruous combination of two widely different levels of allegation, an incongruity which remained unresolved throughout the trial. Was one talking here about administrative irregularities, or about serious crimes?

The subject-matter of the trial (systems of refugee and migrant welcome and integration) is governed by administrative rules – regulations, guidelines, etc. -, which already provide for the monitoring of compliance and specify procedures in case of non-compliance, including appropriate penalties and sanctions. If there had been departures from these rules in Riace, as some inspectors claimed, these should have been treated as administrative matters.

An authoritative confirmation of this came from the Council of State, the highest Italian court of administrative law. In April 2020, it ruled in favour of Lucano, finding that the closure of the Riace SPRAR by the Ministry of the Interior had been unlawful, and ordering it to be reopened. The Council of State declared that service guidelines provided appropriate means for addressing any irregularities that might have occurred in the conduct of the SPRAR. Closing the service had been an illegitimate response; the basic principle of loyal cooperation in public administration should have prompted more proportionate actions to address those irregularities. No mention of this ruling was made during the trial at Locri.

On the contrary, the prosecution characterised as crimes such “serious violations” of guidelines as employment grants, the issue of shopping tokens, and migrant overstays. “Lungo-permanenti” is the Italian bureaucratic term for migrants who over-stayed the set duration of the welcome projects funded by the SPRAR and CAS systems. At a certain point the period of stays funded by SPRAR were limited to six months – although it was possible to ask for an extension. And indeed Lucano requested an extension a number of times for “human reasons”, saying that it was a nonsense that a rigid rule should take no account of issues such as schooling needs and other care  obligations. Though most often there was no response to these requests, he never sent people away, even if SPRAR was no longer paying for them.

The prosecution alleged that, due to these practices, more people were received in Riace than those officially admitted to funded welcome projects, and/or that they were accepted for a period of time exceeding the official limit. Yet these were exactly the most well-known features of the Riace experiment in migrant integration: work training, reviving the local economy, and respecting each person’s needs for the means of autonomy. For years, these practices had been carried out in open view; they were well known not only to the institutions that continued to support and send refugees to the services, but also to public opinion, which over time came to take an interest in Riace and its innovative solutions. Thus, a first difficulty for the prosecution came from the need to explain how it was that only at the end of 2016 these innovative practices came to be reclassified as serious irregularities, resulting in the closure of the SPRAR and the brining of criminal charges.

A further major problem in justifying the re-categorisation of administrative irregularities as crimes lay in the lack of evidence of personal gain from the alleged offences. The motive of Lucano’s actions, a key point in criminal law, was a crucial weakness of the prosecution’s case. The prosecutor’s allegations consistently failed to prove a material benefit to the accused: Lucano had no money in his bank accounts, no property; he was clearly living only on his salary as mayor. The prosecutor himself was obliged to acknowledge that Lucano was driven by humanitarian motives.

At one point, they tried to argue that the unlawful benefit deriving from the administrative errors was a political and electoral benefit. Yet even this was hard to demonstrate, because Lucano did not run in any electoral contest after being re-elected mayor for the third and last possible time in 2014, long before the start of this investigation. And so, little by little the question of motive faded from the prosecution’s narrative.

The prosecution’s strategies

Given their inability to identify a criminal motive, the prosecution’s strategy instead focused on redescribing all  forms of integration policy practised in Riace as criminal offences. They allowed themselves to do this by refusing to take into account the specific features, goals and targets of the Riace model, and reducing all of these to the  generic status of devices for the misappropriation of public funds. According to the Prosecutor, this was the basis of every activity aimed at integrating migrants, and made each of them a crime; the charges of embezzlement, fraud, misappropriation and other offences, were all based on the allegation of a misuse of public funds. The argument goes more or less like this: the 35 euros (per day per person) provided by the State for refugee welcome were used in Riace not only to cover food and accommodation costs, but for “much more”. In this “much more” lay the crime. What was it that Lucano did that was more than he should have done?

He did a lot, indeed. He always said openly, including at administrative and institutional hearings, that in places such as Riace, food and accommodation were cheap, whereas job opportunities were non-existent even for locals; this was what created the opportunity for him to use a part of the welcome funding to help create the conditions for work and social integration. This was no startling discovery first made by the prosecutors.

The prosecution argued that these “savings” should have been returned to the State, and  refused outright to consider how they were used, what purposes were being pursued, or what results accomplished. The use of public funds to create job opportunities for refugees and native residents, in a local setting devoid of resources and previously condemned to depopulation, was treated simply as a banal act of misappropriation, not intrinsically different from appropriation for personal gain. When the judge pointed out that these activities, even though done in an unorthodox way, still aimed at promoting integration, the Prosecutor merely retorted that such expenditure was not allowed by the guidelines – or rather, that such supplementary expenditures would have required a specific request for permission. But in this case the problem would have amounted only to the lack of an application to local authorities, and one would once again be talking about administrative irregularities, rather than something calling for a criminal prosecution.

Integration activities were the hallmark of the Riace experiment: unlike most other reception centres, Riace welcomed families and single women with children; accordingly, integration needed to take various forms, including provision of work and schooling. The core elements of its innovative model – workshops, the oil press, solidarity tourism, urban redevelopment, welcome services, etc. – were all designed to offer opportunities for integration, while opening job opportunities also to locals. By contrast, once reduced to the character of a general mechanism of misappropriation of public funds, these actions were stripped of their meaning in terms of integration, even their effectiveness became a matter of indifference, and there was no need to take any account of what they achieved.

Lucano’s great strength is that all his public actions have always been taken in full public view; for each of these welcome and integration activities he stated publicly, and again in court, its specific logic and expected contribution towards the overall purpose of building a cohesive community.

Take the example of the communal oil-press. In November 2019, Lucano proudly told the Court that thanks to the savings made on welcome funding, the disused village oil-press had been repaired, modernized and brought back into operation, employing 20 people and producing a high quality organic olive oil. The oil-press was in fact by then the fulcrum of the local economy. The Prosecutor’s Office for its part preferred to ignore those achievements, reducing the oil-press restoration to another instance of misappropriation: in its narrative, the initiative was supposed to have originated from the wish of Lucano and the Riace welcome management association Città Futura “to acquire the ownership of an oil-press” by diverting funding from migrant welcome. The same reasoning was applied to spending on the houses for solidarity tourism, which provided jobs to a few people, or on urban development.

The Riace model and its practices had always been clear. The great contradiction is between different meanings assigned to them. Ignoring the objective of integration was a way of keeping alive the suspicion that those ‘savings’ might have ended in some personal gain, even though there is no evidence of this. Elsewhere in Italy, migrant welcome has indeed been made to yield “higher profits than from drugs”, as Salvatore Buzzi, a well-known Mafia criminal engaged in the ‘welcome business once said. In the Riace trial we find the paradox that one can represent as a serious crime the act of  spending on migrant integration all savings made on migrant welcome funding grants – exactly the opposite of Buzzi’s  criminal and exploitative business model. We see clearly here that the prosecution is not really interested in actions, nor in their motives; its true target is the ideas that inspired them.

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