Rome, Italy – Thousands across Italy have been protesting against the harsh conditions of Alfredo Cospito’s imprisonment, as fears for the 55-year-old anarchist’s health grow with his hunger strike extending 150 days.
Cospito was jailed for 10 years in 2012 for shooting the chief of a nuclear energy company in the leg, in his words “to punish one of the many sorcerers of the atomic industry”, and was later handed a life sentence for setting off two bombs in front of a police academy near Turin in 2006. Both attacks were non-fatal, and while no one was injured in the bombing, investigators concluded that the explosives were designed to kill.
In May, he was moved to 41-bis, a form of solitary confinement known colloquially as “hard prison” and usually reserved for hardened criminals, such as mafia bosses, becoming the first anarchist to be punished under the regime.
He began a hunger strike in October, and has pledged to protest against 41-bis “until his last breath”.
“Today I am ready to die to make the world understand what 41-bis really is,” he wrote from prison this month. “I am convinced that my death will be an obstacle to this regime.”
Cospito has reportedly lost more than 50kg (110 pounds) and has been in and out of the hospital, raising concerns that his health could be irreparably damaged.
The Italian government says Cospito will be force-fed when it becomes necessary, based on consultation with the National Bioethics Council.
What is 41-bis?
Originally intended as a provisional measure when it was first drafted in 1986, 41-bis was expanded over the years to become a key tool in the government’s fight against the mafia, by limiting inmates’ “communication with the outside”.
Prisoners under 41-bis are severely isolated – they are allowed just one hour of closely monitored family visits a month and two hours a day outside the prison cells. They are forced to remain alone in their cells for the remainder of the day and cannot read anything from outside the jail.
Cospito has said he has not seen “a single blade of grass” during his 41-bis detention and that photographs of his parents were removed from his cell.
Antigone, a non-profit advocacy organisation based in Rome which has researched prison conditions in Italy, has called for Cospito to be released from 41-bis.
“We have been following 41-bis essentially from the beginning,” said Alessio Scandurra legal coordinator for Antigone, adding that “we have frequently had the impression that this measure is not only used to prevent inmates’ communication with the outside, but as a form of punishment”.
Amnesty International has called the sentence “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.
More than 700 other inmates are understood to be serving under 41-bis.
But it is Cospito’s case that has set off a heated national debate and set up a showdown between Italy’s new right-wing government and the international anarchist movement rallying in Italy and across the globe.
Italian anarchists have regularly taken to the streets in recent months.
On Saturday, they burned 16 cars belonging to the national post system in Rome, claiming solidarity with Cospito on the 150th day of his hunger strike.
Hundreds of protesters have also showed up at demonstrations in Rome and Milan. Crowds in Turin clashed with police. Graffiti has been scrawled on public buildings. Banners reading “Italy Tortures” have been unfurled over monuments in Rome and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence is among the landmarks that has been decorated.
Anarchists claiming solidarity with Cospito have also burned the cars of two Italian diplomats in Athens and Berlin, five cars belonging to a large telecom company in Rome, and two police cars in Milan. No one was hurt.
“The demonstrations should serve to raise awareness within the institutions,” said a labour organiser who has been raising awareness about Cospito’s case, adding that “prisons should be an instrument used for rehabilitation, not ideological repression”.
They asked to remain anonymous for fear they will be targeted by the police.
At a news conference in January, Foreign Affairs Minister Antonio Tajani declared there was “an international anarchist campaign against the Italian state”, listing pro-Cospito demonstrations and vandalism in nine countries.
Among these, Italian diplomatic offices in Spain, Switzerland, Germany and Brazil had been vandalised and small explosives had been set off in Bolivia.
When I made this speech, Italian anarchist #AlfredoCospito was on his 105th day of hunger strike against the vicious #41bis prison regime he's been placed under. Today is the 109th day. The Minister for Justice must act now. Any delay is a death sentence. Will the EU say nothing? pic.twitter.com/aA8SfCpqre
— Clare Daly (@ClareDalyMEP) February 5, 2023
The fate of Cospito has also divided politicians.
Italy’s hard-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and her cabinet defend the sentence, while senators from the democratic and progressive parties visit Cospito in jail.
Opposition politicians have expressed concerns related to his health, yet most stop short of calling for the sentence to be revoked.
In public editorials, politicians have argued his sentence is arbitrary, irrational, and dangerously close to torture.
In February, Cospito’s lawyer Flavio Rossi Albertini brought the case to the Justice Department, asking for a review in light of “new information” – but the minister of justice ruled he had to remain in 41-bis.
Carlo Nordio, who is part of the new far-right government, said Cospito remains dangerous, and that his ability to “influence the anarcho-insurrectionist network” was “unchanged”.
Two weeks later, Cospito’s appeal to the Supreme Court was also rejected.
Albertini has since appealed to international legal bodies to weigh in on the case, submitting requests to the European Court on Human Rights (ECHR) and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The UN high commissioner has signalled that he will take up the case, and has asked the Italian government for additional information. The ECHR is yet to decide whether to take it up.
Looking ahead, a hearing will be held by the Constitutional Court on April 18, to revisit his charge based on the 2006 attack on the police academy.
“Our legal efforts to this point have not been successful yet we will not give up,” said Albertini, “including searching for international remedies.”
The latest news of Cospito, from his doctor, is that his “spirits remain high” and “he is determined”.