It was just too good to be true. The European Social Forum in Florence had come and gone without any of the violence and disruptions many mainstream media were telling the public to fear. It had been a perhaps chaotic, yet unmistakably positive moment for the movement of global justice in Europe: visions had been discussed, approaches had been compared, and proposals had been made in a joyous atmosphere of celebration and cooperation. And to top it all, the largest peace march ever seen in Europe had brought together activists from all over the continent, welcomed by a city that had discovered other reasons of pride beyond being one of Europe’s most precious historical sites.
No surprise, therefore, that we were all shell-shocked when, on the morning of 15 November — only five days after the end of the ESF — we learnt that 20 activists, belonging to two networks from Southern Italy had been arrested on charges of political subversion and propaganda. Among them, journalists, students, research assistants and a lawyer and former professor at the University of Cosenza — a few of them were among those who ended up in the Bolzaneto military barracks in Genoa, were activists were detained and beaten up by the police.
It felt as if the whole movement had come under attack, only a few days after proving it can be (and indeed is) a peaceful and constructive force for social, political and economic change. Reactions were of course as strong as the situation demanded: within hours activists took the streets, asking for the immediate release of all prisoners and for a full parliamentary investigations into the process leading to the arrests; politicians released declarations ranging from perplexity to straightforward condemnation of the arrests; mailing lists and alternative information sites started providing up-to-the-minute information about the developments of the investigations; while mainstream media journalists worked themselves up into a state of frenzy in attempts at analyzing, understanding and making conjectures on the real motives behind the arrest. But what exactly has been going on?
The injunction ordering the arrests charges the activists with four crimes: subversive association, political conspiracy through association, subversive propaganda and attack against constitutional bodies and regional assemblies. All four charges are related to the role had by those activists in the demonstrations of Naples (March 2001) and Genoa (July 2001), which are currently being separately investigated by the prosecutor’s offices of the two cities. The relevant articles of the criminal code, on which charges are based, date back to the 1930s, when the then fascist regime enacted them as a means to control and repress any form of political dissent. They took a new lease of life in the 1970s, when they were repeatedly applied to stem the wave of terrorist attacks against members of the then ruling class. They had then fallen into disuse until they were dusted off, just over a week ago, by some deputy prosecutor from Cosenza, a city in the poorest south of the country.
There are two very worrisome aspects about these articles and the way they have been enforced. Firstly, it is not necessary that an action of subversion takes place, for these charges to be applicable: in other words, it is sufficient for two or more people to get together with an aim of subversion for them to be liable of prosecution. This means that those articles punish people for the free expression of their ideas, and the freedom of getting together to discuss such ideas, regardless of whether they lead to acts of violence or subversion, so long as these ideas are considered to be “subversive”. Which takes us to the second point, the meaning of the term “subversive”. In the original wording of those articles, subversion is “an attempt to violently establish the dictatorship of one social class over another, or to violently suppress a social class, or in any case violently subvert the socio-economic order of the State.” (Art. 270 of the Italian criminal code). However, th e wording of the injunction stresses above all the “attempts at subverting the economic orders”, thus giving the current (capitalist) economic system some legal protection of sorts against any attempts at changing it.
The injunction leading to the arrests allegedly takes off from an investigation carried out by the Raggruppamento Operazioni Speciali (Special Operations Unit – ROS) of the Carabinieri, one of Italy’s police forces. The results of investigations, contained in a 980-page report, were allegedly presented to several prosecutor’s offices (most notably those of Naples and Genoa, currently investigating the violence which took place in those cities in March and July 2001, respectively), before landing in Cosenza where it was welcomed by Prosecutor Fiordalisi. Needless to say, the head of the ROS has officially denied the existence of any such report.
The arrests have taken by surprise prosecutors at Genova and Naples: none of those charged appear to be under investigation over the protests in these two cities, although the injunction explicitly refers to those protests and their violent outcome as the main purpose of the subversive association the 20 activists have been charged with. “We know nothing of the investigation taking place in Cosenza”, declared Andrea Canciani, who is leading the investigations in Genova. Moreover, prosecutors at Genova and Naples have firmly rejected any assumption of associative crimes in the facts they are investigating. And as if the situation was not paradoxical enough, it turns out that one of the activists under arrest is actually a witness for the prosecution in Naples.
The injunction quotes statements those arrested made in emails and phone calls, which, according to the prosecution, are evidence of a subversive association that “was conspiring against the government’s functions, was making subversive propaganda” and was aiming at “an attempt on the State’s established economic order”. So for example, immediately before the events in Naples, one of the activists under arrest sent an email to a web site stating that “by militarizing cities, those in power are showing that a real opposition exists; the strength of the movement must be such that the unmanageability of cities must lead in the future to choosing other isolated venues for such meetings”. Similarly, in another document released before the G-8 summit in Genoa, also quoted in the injunction, we read that “the wealth of Naples must now be brought to Genoa, we must not step back an inch. As a southern reality, this is what we should bring: real individuals, and if necessary, real conf rontations.” It does not take much to see, even without being legal experts, that taking such statements as evidence of subversive association and propaganda is a very, very long shot.
What this entails should be clear: were those articles of the criminal code to be widely applied, any of us getting together, exchanging emails, talking about a new economic order, about alternative economic systems, stating a “new world is possible”, and planning actions to show our opposition to the current economic order, could actually face prosecution for our ideas. As a matter of fact, we are all “subversives”.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
As we write, seven activists have been released, while for those still under arrest charges appear to be mounting as the investigations proceed. Francesco Caruso, considered to be the leader of the Disobbedienti del Sud (Disobedients of the South, one of the two networks under investigation), is now accused of producing a document where he “praised Seattle as an example of ability to revolt” – although the Disobbedienti have promptly claimed collective responsibility for the document.
In the meanwhile, protests asking the immediate release of all prisoners are taking place across the country. The latest one two days ago in Cosenza, a city which has unwillingly become the symbol of political repression. Special train from all over Italy carried to the appointment thousands of activists who were put up for the night in shelters arranged by the local administration.
Spokespeople of various groups belonging to the Italian movement are voicing their requests: an immediate reform of the criminal code, a full investigation into the process leading to the arrests, an investigation into the operations of the ROS, the full truth on the events of Naples and Genoa, with immediate release of all the relevant evidence on the violence which took place on those occasions – some even asking the dissolution of the ROS and the dismissal of Di Gennaro, the Head of the Italian Police who has been heavily criticized for the violent repression put in place by the police in Genoa.
Yet few of these voices appear to go beyond the immediate situation, to take into account the bigger picture: the arrests of those activists are not simply the result of distortions in the Italian judiciary, they are (just like the police attacks in Genoa and Naples) part of a wider wave of repression of dissent sweeping across the world. This time it was the movement’s turn to come under the spotlight; next time, who knows. Even if we managed – as on all sides it’s being called for – to obtain a reform of the Italian criminal code, the repressive machine could still come up with new and diverse means of repression to prevent anyone from questioning the current economic and political system. It is not just the movement that is being prosecuted: we all are, so long as we practice our rights to free speech and thought outside what is considered “acceptable” by the ruling classes. It is this message that we, in Italy and beyond, should get across to those sectors of civil socie ty who are still hesitant about joining forces with the movement for global justice. We should not miss this chance to reach out to wider and wider groups of people, to create that critical mass which will make change a reality.