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Rome Colosseum in lights to protest death penalty

People walk past Rome's Colosseum January 6, 2007. Rome lit up the Colosseum on Saturday to support Italy's campaign for a United Nations moratorium on the death penalty, launched in the wake of Saddam Hussein's hanging, the city's mayor said. REUTERS/Dario Pignatelli

ROME (Reuters) - Rome lit up the arches of its ancient Colosseum at dusk on Saturday to protest against the death penalty after Saddam Hussein’s hanging, with the mayor calling it the city’s symbol to the world for human rights.

A crowd of about 50 demonstrators holding banners looked on as the monument, where gladiators once fought gory battles to death, flickered with yellow lights against a blue sky.

“The Colosseum originally was a place of persecution and unspeakable violence,” Mayor Walter Veltroni said. “But now it is a symbol of peace and reconciliation.”

The hanging of the former Iraqi dictator has touched a nerve in Italy, setting off a wave of appeals against the death penalty and prompting a hunger strike from Radical Party leader Marco Pannella, who thanked the mayor from his hospital bed for lighting up the Colosseum.

Italy is also spearheading a campaign for a United Nations moratorium on the death penalty.

“The execution of Saddam Hussein has stirred a debate,” said Michele Lembo, a demonstrator outside the Colosseum. “We ask people to think about what happened and propose an alternative.”

Italy deployed the fourth largest contingent of troops to Iraq as a U.S. ally under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but withdrew the widely unpopular mission at the end of last year.