(CN) — Inside a maximum-security prison on the island of Sardinia, a 55-year-old militant Italian anarchist is on hunger strike: He says he'd rather die than live the rest of his life locked away under Italy's harsh system of isolating inmates considered so dangerous to society they need to be cut off from communicating with the outside world.
Alfredo Cospito's hunger strike — in its 77th day on Wednesday — is renewing a thorny debate over the legality of Italian laws that permit the state to almost entirely seal off imprisoned leaders of criminal organizations and terrorist groups from contact with the world beyond the prison walls.
Cospito's case is gathering some support, especially on the political left, because his history of criminal activity as a militant anarchist is less violent than that of others languishing inside Italy's regime of extreme isolation.
For weeks, there have been sporadic acts of protest and vandalism in support of Cospito. Anarchists have marched in Italian cities, spray-painted city walls, smashed bank machines and windows in Rome, and strung up protest banners equating Cospito's imprisonment to torture. Banners have shown up dangling from towering construction cranes, outside a prison and down the side of a building at the prestigious Sapienza University of Rome.
On Dec. 2, a firebomb destroyed the car of an Italian embassy official in Athens, Greece, in an attack linked to Greek anarchists angry over Cospito's imprisonment.
And his case has become a topic in Italian media, sparking clashing opinions over whether this regime of isolation — one of the most extreme in the European Union — is an inhumane form of punishment.
In 2012, Cospito shot Roberto Adinolfi, the chief administrator of Ansaldo Nucleare, an Italian nuclear energy company, in the leg with a pistol. Cospito declared in court that he shot Adinolfi to protest the development of nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
A previous attack was subsequently linked to Cospito: the 2006 detonation of explosives outside a police academy in Fossano, a town in Piedmont in northern Italy. No one was injured in that late-night explosion.
Last April, Italy's high court ruled that the jailed Cospito had acted as a chief instigator of anarchist terrorist activity communicating with fellow anarchists through books, articles, online writings and comments while serving prison sentences inside the high-security prison in Bancali, Sardinia.
Authorities accused him of acting as a leader of a militant anarchist group with links outside Italy known as the Informal Anarchist Federation-International Revolutionary Front. This collective of “insurrectionary anarchists” was viewed as a growing threat in a 2014 report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the American military academy.
By branding him a leader of the anarchist movement, Italian authorities ordered Cospito into total isolation, cutting off his contact with the outside world. He joined Italy's notorious and savage mafia bosses in the most secluded corner of the country's prison system.
Flavio Rossi Albertini, the anarchist's lawyer, said that by going on hunger strike Cospito is “basically saying a more courageous Italian state would have gotten rid of him sooner by shooting him in the back, killing him outright, instead of subjecting him to this condition.”
These harsh detention laws — known by the shorthand “41 bis,” a reference to the number of the corresponding article in Italy's penal code — go back to 1975, an era of violent political turbulence, but are most often associated with Italy's fight against the Sicilian mafia in the 1990s.
Under this prison regime, some 743 figures of the Italian underworld are locked away in near-total isolation and forbidden most communication with the outside world. Many of these gangsters have spent up to 30 years in isolation.