On Monday, the prosecutor-general of Italy’s supreme court recommended that Alfredo Cospito be released from the highly restrictive “41-bis” system under which he has been detained since last spring. Yet time is running out for the 55-year-old Italian anarchist, who has been on hunger strike for 115 days.
A controversial figure in Italy, many consider Cospito a domestic terrorist. To others, he is the victim of a state expanding a brutal prison regime to new targets.
A leading member of the Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI), Cospito has been in prison since 2014 for shooting Roberto Adinolfi, a senior executive of the nuclear energy company Ansaldo Nucleare, in the knee three times, together with fellow anarchist Nicola Gai.
The attack has been compared to those of Italy’s Marxist-Leninist Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), which at its peak in the 1970s and 80s would frequently “kneecap” their targets and which in 1978 kidnapped and killed former prime minister Aldo Moro.
Cospito and Gai’s attack was not fatal, however, leaving Adinolfi with a fractured knee.
In 2019, while in prison, Cospito received an additional 20-year sentence for the 2006 bombing of a police academy in Piedmont – which resulted in no injuries – and for a wave of other non-fatal attacks. These include a series of parcel bombs sent to targets across Italy, including former European Commission president Romano Prodi and the director of a Modena immigration detention centre. Cospito’s sentence was later increased to life by the supreme court.
Last May, Cospito was moved to the Bancali prison in the Sardinian city of Sassari for allegedly urging anarchists outside prison to launch attacks against those involved in his arrest. The authorities chose this prison as it is among the few in Italy to operate under the super strict “41-bis” system.
“Akin to torture.”
Also known as carcere duro (hard regime), the name is a reference to the 41st article of the prison reform law under which it was introduced in 1986. At the time, Italy was waging an all-out war on the mafia groups of the south.
In an attempt to prevent mafia bosses from continuing their work from inside prison, 41-bis suspended almost all prisoners’ usual rights. Under the regime, inmates are kept in 1.5 metre by 2.5 metre cell for 22 hours a day, allowed no social contact, phone calls or parcels, and are permitted only one monthly visit.
41-bis has attracted widespread international condemnation. In 2003, Amnesty International described 41-bis as “cruel and inhumane and degrading”. In 2007, the regime was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for breaching two of its articles: 6, the right to a fair hearing, and 8, the right to respect for private and family life.
When that same year Italy attempted to extradite mafia boss Rosario Gambino from the USA, his lawyers successfully argued that 41-bis would pose a risk to their client’s life; the US federal judge wrote in his decision that the regime was “akin to torture”.
The system has also drawn criticism from Italian civil society. “Is it fair for a category of the legal system to be aimed only at revenge?” asked Zero Calcare, a popular cartoonist and leftist activist in Italy, in a recent article for the Italian magazine L’essenziale. “Even if they are monsters, is it good to destroy them psychologically and physically? Because this is the purpose of 41-bis.”
Such criticism, whether foreign or domestic, has done little to deter the Italian state: at the time of writing, 749 people are detained under 41-bis.
On the contrary, Italy’s newly-elected far-right government, led by prime minister Giorgia Meloni and her party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), has sought to expand 41-bis to new targets.
“This government needs enemies.”
Cospito’s strike is not new: in 2002, 300 Mafia prisoners declared a hunger strike against 41-bis. What is new is the use of 41-bis – a system designed for mass-murdering mafiosos – against a political activist.
Meloni has taken a hard line on Cospito’s detention: “Just as the state does not negotiate with the mafia,” she recently told the press, “nor does it negotiate with terrorists.”
Donatella Di Cesare is a professor of philosophy at La Sapienza university in Rome. Speaking to Novara Media, she notes that Cospito “was already stigmatised during the [technocratic] [Mario] Draghi administration, but the situation has become more problematic [under] Meloni […], a government of the right and post-fascist.”
Of Meloni’s characterisation of Cospito’s actions as “terrorism”, Di Cesare says: “We know well that ‘terrorism’ is a political definition which is applied to dissidents.” Journalist David Broder has noted that Fratelli D’Italia “often evoke terrorism, Red Brigades etc. even with regard to hostile graffiti and banners”.
“This post-fascist government needs enemies,” Di Cesare adds. “Sometimes [those enemies] are immigrants – right now, they are anarchists.”
This situation, she says, has produced a “nightmare […] in which post-fascists are in government, and anarchists are in prison.”
Though Meloni may have widened this gulf, Italy has a long history of treating far-right and hard-left actors markedly differently. Luca Traini, the fascist who in 2018 shot and seriously wounded six African immigrants in the central Italian city of Macerata, received 12 years in prison. The following year, Cospito would be sent down for almost twice as long for a non-fatal attack. Cospito’s now life imprisonment under 41-bis reflects the wider political priorities of the far-right government.
Giuliano Granato is a spokesperson for the leftist Italian party Potere al Popolo (Power to the People). Speaking to Novara Media, he points out that “[t]he crime of which [Cospito] is accused […] was upgraded by the Supreme Court to ’massacre against the security of the State’. But this crime was not even given to the conspirators of the fascist massacre of Piazza Fontana in 1969 [in which far-right terrorists set a bomb outside the headquarters of the National Agricultural Bank in Milan, killing 17 and wounding 88] or to those of the mafia-led massacre of Capaci, in which Judge Falcone died.”
Di Cesare notes that the political pushback against Cospito’s detention has been non-existent: “They [centre-left party Partito Democratico, or Democratic party] didn’t […] defend Cospito; they agree with 41 bis. There is no difference between the parties. The difference is just in the public opinion.”
Cospito’s hunger strike has triggered protests across the country, with thousands taking to the streets to demand Cospito’s release and an end to 41-bis. Street clashes between protesters and the police occur almost nightly in Milan near where Cospito is detained; students at the University of Turin have created a to-scale replica of his cell in the middle of campus.
In Rome, the city’s largest university has been occupied by activists since last week demanding an end to 41-bis, while in the Roman neighbourhood of Trastevere, 400 protesters took to the streets this week. Throughout Italian cities, posters and stickers of Cospito line bus stops and ancient walls.
The widespread protests have triggered a predictable pushback from Italy’s far-right government, reportedly sparking calls for crackdowns on “street-protest terrorism”.
A death sentence.
Cospito’s lawyers appealed against their client’s imprisonment under the 41-bis regime last year for endangering his health, but on 19 December, a Roman court rejected their request. The appeal has since been elevated to the Italian ministry of justice, which has decided to leave a final decision to the judiciary on 7 March, a delay Irish leftist MEP Clare Daly has described as “a death sentence”.
The review has since been brought forward to 24 February. Ahead of the hearing, prosecutor-general Pietro Gaeta has today recommended that Cospito be released from 41-bis, saying that there was insufficient evidence that Cospito was continuing to work from inside prison to justify the use of the super strict regime.
In January, Cospito was moved to a prison hospital in Milan due to ailing health; he has reportedly lost over 45kg over the course of his protest. An appeal by Cospito’s lawyers for justice minister Carlo Nordio to intervene directly was rejected – a decision that, according to Granato, “probably condemns [Cospito] to death”. “It is very possible that [Cospito] will die in the next few days,” says Di Cesare.
This, suggests Granato, may be the government’s intention: “The feeling is that sections of the state prefer Cospito to become a martyr.”