Sunday, February 22, 2009

Italy cracks down: race, rape and really questionable policy

by Christina DiGasbarro

Just a few days ago, Italy enacted a new law toughening up punishments and procedures for rape cases; though it has yet to be approved by the parliament, the law has already gone into effect. The interesting things is that sexual violence in Italy is on the decline; what, then, was the impetus for this emergency legislation? Recent rapes that have garnered media attention and made for widespread outrage.

There are some heartening and worthwhile provisions in the new law. Now, those who rape children or kill the victims of their rape, if convicted, will face lifetime prison sentences. Hopefully the severity of the sentence will discourage future rapists; even if it doesn’t, at least these most violent of rapists will be off the streets. The law also will expedite trials for rapists who are caught in the midst of their crime, which will prevent money being wasted on drawn-out legal proceedings, should the rapist in such a case have the audacity to plea ‘not guilty.’ Most positively, the law provides legal aid to the victims of rape free of charge. These measures all indicate that women’s safety is being taken seriously, and that sexual offenders will not be able to get off easily.

At the same time, there are some troubling provisions. Italy has been having trouble with illegal immigration and foreigners for quite a while now, and the most recent rapes to receive large amounts of attention were allegedly committed by foreigners. As such, the new law includes some measures that specifically target immigrants. Immigrants now may be detained for a full six months (it used to be only two) while they are identified, processed, etc. Vigilante groups have recently appeared, targeting foreigners; the new law almost legalizes these groups in an attempt to regulate them. Unarmed volunteers, in constant contact with the police, will now patrol the streets of Italy’s cities to watch for and thus attempt to prevent crimes.

I’m not sure that having such volunteer patrols when the atmosphere is so highly emotionally charged is a good idea even in theory; one can hope that, in practice, it will work out without increasing violence or discrimination against foreigners, but that does seem like a bit too much to hope for. And the tripling of the period for detaining immigrants is simply the latest attempt to patch up what Italians regard as a broken immigration system; but this measure seems more likely to cause more administrative troubles and make immigration more contentious, as opposed to making the system work better.

While I applaud the Italian government for taking sexual assault seriously, the volunteer patrols and restrictions on immigration have serious potential to, at the least, make life more difficult for immigrants and encourage discrimination and profiling, or, in the extreme, actually endanger immigrants by seeming to encourage vigilante behavior. In seeking to protect the rights and safety of some—a truly worthy goal—we must not sacrifice the rights and safety of others; a trade-off cannot be acceptable when everyone involved is equally a human being.

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