ROME (Reuters) - A European court ruled on Tuesday that Italy’s tough prison regimes for mobsters and convicted terrorists who refused to cooperate with the justice system violated human rights and needed to be changed.
Government ministers and magistrates denounced the decision by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and said it could weaken the fight against organized crime and militant groups.
“You must be joking? ... Rights for people who dissolved children in acid? No way,” Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who heads the ruling 5-Star Movement, wrote on Facebook.
“The history of our country has left us too much blood and pain. We will not look the other way.”
The court ruling focused specifically on the case of Marcello Viola, who was sentenced in 1999 to life imprisonment for several mafia-linked crimes, including murder.
Viola has never cooperated with the authorities or given information that might help other investigations, and for this reason he has never received any prison privileges, such as day passes, unlike many other long-time inmates.
Critics of the tough regime told the ECHR that one of the main reasons why prisoners refused to cooperate was fear of retaliation against their families.
“The court inferred from this that the lack of cooperation was not always the result of a free and deliberate choice,” the ECHR said in June, when it originally ruled in the case.
On Tuesday, the court refused to let Italy appeal the verdict, meaning Rome will now need to come up with measures to redress the rights violations. The ECHR made clear that despite its decision, it was not demanding the release of Viola.
Italian magistrates say fear of unrelenting prison conditions is key to persuading mafiosi to become informers.
“Only jail scares the mobsters,” anti-mafia magistrate Nino Di Matteo told daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.
Italy toughened jail conditions for mobsters and terrorists following the bloody struggles of the 1980s and the 1990s, which culminated with the murder of two top Sicilian anti-mafia magistrates, Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone, in 1992.
Following the change to the law, large numbers of turncoats started cooperating with police, leading, amongst other things to the arrest of Salvatore ‘the beast’ Riina, who was convicted of ordering the killings of both Borsellino and Falcone.
Riina always refused to cooperate with magistrates and died in jail in 2017, denied house arrest which is normally offered to terminally ill prisoners.
The decision of the ECHR, which has no connection with the European Union, angered right-wing nationalists, who complain that Italy has handed over too much sovereignty to European institutions.
“Another act of madness against Italy from the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights”, said Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s most popular party, the far-right League.
Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Giles Elgood