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A storm of protests

Print edition : Dec 20, 2002 T+T-

The arrest of anti-globalisation activists in Italy sparks widespread protests and charges of victimisation against the police.

IN the climate of threats of a war on Iraq, and of anti-war protests across Europe, further protests were sparked off in Italy by the arrest of anti-globalisation activists. Nineteen persons, including Francesco Caruso of the Social Forum, which has recently emerged as a major "no-global" formation, were arrested on the orders of the Public Prosecutor in the south Italian city of Cosenza. The more than 40 activists being investigated in the case are all from the relatively less prosperous south of the country - from the regions of Calabria, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Sicily.

The charges against what is being described as the "southern network of rebels" qualify as serious crimes against the state, and range from subversive association aimed at undermining the constitutional and economic order to subversive propaganda and attempts to disrupt government functioning through public disturbance and violence. The specified instances of violence occurred during international meets in Italy last year, first in Naples and then at the G-8 summit in Genoa. According to the investigating agencies, this network came into being at the beginning of 2001 with the objective of committing subversive acts and causing large-scale damage on the occasion of major international meets in Italy.

With the meeting of the leaders of the world's seven most industrialised nations and Russia in July 2001, Genoa became a synonym for some of the worst rioting in Europe. Tens of thousands of anti-globalisation protesters arrived in the city, while many from elsewhere in Europe were stopped at the frontier by the Italian police. The demonstrations started peacefully, but on the second day of the summit violent clashes between the police and groups of protesters led to large-scale rioting and devastation in the city. Buildings, banks and cars were set on fire. A young protestor died in police firing, more than 500 people were injured, and 200 were arrested.

Most of the violence involved groups of masked youth known as the "black block", wearing black clothing, hoods and gas masks. Their identity is still to be definitively established, and they are believed to be from the various anarchist and radical groups that had declared a war on the G-8 summit. The main organiser of the protests, the Genoa Social Forum, strongly condemned the tactics of the "black block". The rioting was estimated to have caused damages exceeding $40 millions.

The police in Genoa faced sharp criticism for the excessive use of force and for the brutality towards the protesters. Criminal investigations were started and magistrates notified nearly a hundred police officers for their alleged role in these events. Eyewitnesses and victims spoke of police beatings and brutality in the detention centres. Amnesty International accused the police of torturing hundreds of protesters. A midnight raid by the police on a school where campaigners had been lodged resulted in many injuries and the destruction of computers and other communications equipment used by the protesters. Earlier in the year, the police and demonstrators had clashed in Naples, where around 20,000 anti-globalisation activists had gathered to protest against a meeting of the Global Forum, a conference of government and technology leaders from 120 countries. The G-8 meet in Genoa was, however, the first major international meet in Italy after the Centre-Right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi assumed office in May 2001.

According to the police Special Operations Group (ROS) investigating the activists, those arrested are alleged to have linked up with the "black block" in Genoa for provoking clashes between the police and the demonstrators. They are further accused of having engaged in constant propaganda, also over the Internet, to undermine violently the economic order of the state. The police had raided the offices of the Genoa Social Forum after the riots during the G-8 summit; they claim to have found knives, sledgehammers and pickaxes that were used in the violence.

The news of the arrests provoked immediate protests in various cities in the south. More than 10,000 people gathered in the centre of Naples, facing police barricades. There were demonstrations in Benevento, the home town of Caruso, in Viterbo, and in Trani, where the arrested were jailed. Cosenza, in the province of Calabria, has become the centre of the protests because most of the activists being investigated belong to this town. Around 50,000 people gathered here in a rally to demand that the arrested be freed. Even the organisers of the demonstration appeared surprised by the overwhelming response; residents of Cosenza came out of their homes to join the march as it moved through the city. The Social Forum claimed that 100,000 people took part in the protests.

The Mayor of Cosenza, Eva Cotizone, was among those leading the protest march and was accompanied by some members of Parliament from Italy's Greens Party. The Mayor belongs to the Left Democrats, the largest among the parties in the national Opposition. She announced Cosenza municipality's solidarity with the anti-globalisation movement and that it would help with the legal expenses for the defence. Expressions of support also came from sections of the Catholic Church. Giuseppe Agostino, the Bishop of Cosenza, described the arrests as an exaggerated measure. "It has come as a surprise. I cannot and do not want to pass judgment on the actions of the magistrates, but I know those boys," declared Agostino, referring to the arrested activists. "That they were excessively lively in the tone they adopted could perhaps be true, but that there was a conspiracy against the state seems to me an excessive accusation. That there was subversion involved, seems to me an exaggeration."

The arrests came within days of one of the largest-ever peace rallies in Europe, which was held in the Italian city of Florence. Tens of thousands of delegates from various countries gathered for a four-day anti-globalisation meet to discuss issues ranging from debt reduction and equitable distribution of wealth to the global growth of corporate power and support for the Palestinian cause. The meeting, described as the first European Social Forum, has been modelled on the World Social Forum, which meets in Brazil every year. But opposition to any U.S. attack on Iraq became the dominant theme of the Florence gathering, which climaxed in a peace rally of an estimated half a million people. Activists planned to hold a series of further demonstrations in all major European capitals against a possible war on Iraq.

The approach to such a gathering of anti-globalisation activists had been full of forebodings about a repeat of the kind of violence seen in Genoa last year. In the end, the contrast between Florence this November with Genoa during the previous year could not be greater. The gathering of more than half a million protesters in the city renowned for Renaissance art did not generate any tensions. The atmosphere, instead, bordered on the festive.

THE arrest of the anti-globalisation activists within days of the successful protest in Florence has perturbed politicians, particularly from among the Opposition. Government circles have been more guarded in their reaction to the action of the Public Prosecutor. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has his own problems with the judiciary, because of the charges of corruption against him. Piero Fassino, secretary of the Left Democrats Party, declared, "The decisions of the magistrates are to be respected. However, I am bewildered, disconcerted and worried both by the seriousness of the charges as well as by the act of arresting these persons."

Fausto Bertinotti, leader of the Communist Refoundation, which has on various occasions joined in the demonstrations organised by the anti-globalisation groups, said in a radio interview that he was "greatly disturbed, bewildered and angry. The offences (with which the anti-globalisation activists are charged) are for holding ideological opinions".

Paolo Cento, member of Parliament from the Greens Party, described the arrests as a "gigantic provocation aimed at the anti-globalisation movement." "With the failure of the attempts to criminalise the movement in Genoa and after the great success of the protest rally in Florence," he said, "this is an attempt to rein in the `no-global' movement by invoking provisions of the penal code."

The country's largest trade union, CGIL, in a statement expressed fears that the arrests "would sharpen social tensions at a time when the country was going through a difficult phase. However, there have also been a series of extraordinary demonstrations of mass protest conducted in a peaceful and democratic manner during this year, from the general strike in January to the successful protest of the Social Forum in Florence a few days back."

A report published in the leading daily, La Repubblica, provides an account of how the ROS tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Public Prosecutors in Genoa, Turin and Naples to bring a case against the anti-globalisation activists. The ROS was turned down for not having a credible case, before it succeeded in its attempt with the Public Prosecutor in Cosenza.

Highlighting this background, the La Repubblica report suggests that attempts to foist a case with many loopholes would only serve to force the movement towards violent and subversive forms of radicalism.