The Italian public has has reacted angrily to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that it should relax conditions for mafia prisoners serving life sentences.

The court, which is based in Strasbourg, ruled that Italy’s tough prison regime for mafiosi and other criminals, including radical leftist and jihadist terrorists and who refuse to cooperate with Italian the justice system, is inhuman and degrading.

The court’s decision will affect around 1,000 inmates in Italy’s prisons, more than half of whom have been behind bars for more than 20 years.

Italy first introduced tough prison regimes for mafia killers in the 1980s and 1990s after an upsurge in violence that included the 1992 assassination of two leading investigators in Sicily, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, by the Sicilian mafia, or Cosa Nostra.

The court’s ruling revolved around the case of a convicted boss, Marcello Viola, a high-ranking member of the ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria’s feared mafia that dominates organized crime in the far south of the country. Viola was convicted and given a life sentence in 1999 for several mafia-linked killings, as well armed robberies, extortion, and kidnapping.

The ECHR’s judgment stated that life terms subjected prisoners to inhuman and degrading treatment and violated their dignity. The European court also demanded that Italy revise its laws for life sentences that are handed down for very serious crimes.

The ruling has triggered an outcry among investigators, who claim it does not take into account the context and history of the mafia in Italy.

Since the ECHR’s ruling, Italian prosecutors have said that the fear of harsh prison conditions is key to persuading mafiosi to become informers as they hope to avoid living a completely isolated life in jail.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the conservative Eurosceptic Lega party and now the head of Italy’s political opposition, called the ruling “the umpteenth crazy decision from the Strasbourg Court that is a detriment for Italy,” adding, “We now need to be nicer to mafiosi and assassins? Never. As far as I’m concerned, life imprisonment for the worst delinquents should be untouchable.”

Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi di Maio, who is also the head of the Five Star Movement, one half of the ruling coalition, was equally scathing in his rebuke of the ECHR, saying, “You must be joking. If you go hand in hand with the mafia, if you destroy the lives of whole families and innocent people, you do prison according to certain rules,” before adding, “No prison time taken off, no conditional liberty. You pay, full stop.”

Nicola Morra, the president of the government’s Anti-Mafia Commission. “The judges in Strasbourg have major a big error.”

New Europe’s Federico Grandesso sat down with Five Star Movement MEP Ignazio Corrao to discuss the European Court on Human Rights’ highly controversial ruling.

A mock public funeral poster announcing the death of Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina with a list bearing the names of dozens of mafia victims, including slain anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in Naples, Italy on 17 November 2017. Riina was Italy’s most feared Mafiosi and died in prison while serving 26 life sentences.

New Europe (NE): What was your first reaction after this controversial judgment from the ECHR about life imprisonment sentences for incarcerated mafiosi? 

  Ignazio Corrao (IC): In a very simple way, we have to take note that there is very little knowledge about the history of the anti-mafia movement in Italy and how we adopted certain legislation and sanctions regime because of a decennial fight and sacrifice of human lives. Sadly, I think that this judgment is further proof that the European Court on Human Rights has amazingly poor knowledge about what was the Italian legal process is for Mafiosi and similar killers. Furthermore, I think our system should be replicated in other countries and not stigmatised in a negative way.

NE: As a Sicilian member of the European Parliament, I can imagine you shared your opinion about this ruling with other relevant people who are still fighting the mafia. What are the comments and reactions that you’ve received from people back home in Sicily?

IC: We were all shocked by this decision because it seems to be a judgment written to curry favour with the mafiosi. We are talking about a non-binding decision, but this is a negative indication that is coming from an institution that should be able to asses the constructive and positive activities of the courts and law enforcement officials who are successfully cracking down on organised crime groups in Italy.

NE: A few days ago, the charismatic anti-mafia magistrate Nino Di Matteo was elected at the High Council of Judiciary What is your comment about his appointment?

IC: This Italian government is going in another direction. We are committed to explaining what it means to put in place a strategy that suppresses organised crime. Here in the European Parliament, there was a lot of scepticism about Italy’s handling of the mafia and a tendency to utterly disregard the investigative and judiciary tools that have had a positive effect on defeating organised crime groups. This is a slow process. But we are a long way from the times when there were people who denied in the 1970s and 1980s that the mafia actually exists.

The trial of Bernardo Provenzano in Palermo, Sicily. Provenzano was the ‘boss of bosses’ of the Sicilian mafia first went of trial in 2006 along with other mafiosi for dozens of murders and after 43 years as a fugitive. Provenzano took over Italy’s most powerful crime family from Salvatore “Toto” Riina following the latter’s arrest in 1993.EPA-EFE//FRANCO LANNINO

NE: What should be done on the EU level to fight these criminal organisations?

IC: At the EU level, we need to work on developing a common anti-mafia legislation that, unfortunately, is missing. We need to start from by defining and acknowledging, from all the EU member states, exactly what the mafia is and isn’t. Right now we are literally in “year zero” with regards to anti-mafia measures in Brussels. During the past legislature we made a lot of proposals, two of which were resolutions from a special commission that asked for several measures to be taken towards forging a common approach to the scourge of the mafia. We made a big push to give to the Italian anti-mafia measures the sort of exposure and recognition that it needs, despite being completely ignored in other EU countries. In the past, there were others who tried to extent our legislation, but I think that now we have to push more because it is evident that what was done in past was not enough. In some countries it is still difficult to recognise exactly what this kind of crime the mafia is involved in. In countries like Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, and Romania there are lots of fugitives who are linked to mafia families and who were carrying out highly rewarding activities. There were also a lot of corruption mechanisms and fraud cases involving EU funds that were done by criminal groups collaborating with local institutions outside of Italy.

NE: Do you think OLAF (the European Union anti-fraud office) can have a role in this strategy?

IC: Yes, it can. Also, Eurojust can have a role and all the existing institutions and agencies. We need to use the existing tools that are working well together with new organisations that, thanks to a better and more coordinated investigative activity, could put in place a strategy to combat criminal groups in the whole of the European Union. I agree then that the EU arrest warrant will be an important tool as it will give to our judges the possibility to prosecute criminals also in other countries.    

NE: Also this week, Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation rejected a petition by Giovanni Brusca, the Sicilian mafia boss responsible for the killing of over 200* people and who set off the explosive that killed anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone in 1992, to be released from jail and sent to serve the rest of his term under house arrest. Are you surprised about these efforts to free such prominent Mafia leaders?

*Brusca was involved in one Italy most grisly recent crimes after he had the 11-year-old son of a mafia turncoat, Santino Di Matteo, kidnapped, tortured, held captive for 26 months, and eventually dropped into a vat of acid in order to force Di Matteo into retracting his testimony to Italian law enforcement officials.

IC: In Italy, keeping everyone’s attention on mafia activity is very important. We have to maintain an intransigent attitude towards someone who is guilty of very brutal crimes. Brusca can’t be considered worthy of rehabilitation in our society. There are some terrible actions that are over the limit of all social tolerance. It has to be clear that in Italy, and in the the EU institutions, I hope, society and the courts must have zero tolerance and no weaknesses when dealing with individuals who destroyed the lives of others.