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Italy gripped by anarchist’s hunger strike against solitary confinement

At risk of dying in a hunger strike, an imprisoned anarchist has sparked a vigorous debate by protesting Italy's harsh system of solitary confinement, typically meant for mafia bosses.

(CN) — The fate of an imprisoned Italian anarchist vowing to die if necessary during a hunger strike to protest his country's harsh regime of solitary confinement has become the topic of heated debates and sparked a series of alleged anarchist attacks.

On Monday, Alfredo Cospito, 55, was moved from a maximum-security prison on the island of Sardinia to Milan's Opera prison due to his worsening health condition. He's refused food for the past 104 days and Italian authorities said he would receive better medical care in Milan.

His lawyer says he will not be force-fed in Milan and that his hunger strike will continue. He's been placed in a system of extreme solitary confinement designed to seal off mafia bosses from running their crime rings from inside prison walls.

By Tuesday, his case was the lead story in Italian newspapers and news shows. His protest is sparking political and public debates over whether Cospito should be seen as a political prisoner rather than a security threat who needs to be shut off from nearly all contact with the outside world.

Since going on hunger strike, Cospito has said he'd rather die than live the rest of his life locked away under Italy's harsh isolation system.

His hunger strike is renewing a difficult 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. This regime is known as 41 bis, named after an article of the Italian penal code.

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.

Italian authorities put Alfredo Cospito into its tough prison system of isolation in 2022 after designating him an anarchist terrorist. (Photo courtesy of Cospito family via Courthouse News Service).

But Italy's new hard-line right-wing government isn't about to budge out of concern for Cospito's health.

On Monday, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the head of the ruling far-right Brothers of Italy, rebuffed any suggestion of giving Cospito any leniency. She said the state would not be intimidated by anyone “who threatens state functionaries.”

Adding to the tensions, anarchist supporters of Cospito have been accused of carrying out violent acts in Italy and elsewhere in Europe to demand his release from isolation.

In recent days, an Italian diplomat's car was torched in Berlin; the entrance to an Italian consulate in Barcelona was smeared with pro-Cospito slogans; two police cars in Milan and five cars owned by a major Italian telecommunications company in Rome were set on fire Monday. Meanwhile, acts of vandalism linked to Cospito and street protests have become common in Italian cities.

Justice Minister Carlo Nordio said the spate of attacks is proof that Cospito should be held in solitary confinement. Cospito was placed inside the 41 bis regime because he was deemed to be the leader of anarchist groups and urging them to commit violence while he was in prison but not in isolation.

“The wave of acts of vandalism shows that the link between the inmate and his companions remains and that would tend to justify maintaining the 41 bis,” Nordio said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Italy placed its embassies on high alert Tuesday, citing the danger of anarchist attacks.

Spanish national police stand in front of the Italian embassy in Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, after Italy increased security around its diplomatic missions in response to a series of anarchist attacks. (AP Photo/Paul White)

Since going on hunger strike on Oct. 20, Cospito has lost about 90 pounds of weight and he's now using a wheelchair. Last week, he broke his nose after falling in the shower. His doctor has warned that he will die by April 20 unless he stops the strike, as reported by ANSA, an Italian state news agency.

Cospito's lawyer, Flavio Rossi Albertini, has denied that Cospito is a leader of anarchist groups, which he said are not by their nature hierarchical. Authorities accused him of acting as a leader of the Informal Anarchist Federation-International Revolutionary Front.


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.

The 41 bis regime goes 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.

At regular intervals, the status of inmates in isolation is reevaluated, but it is rare for detainees in the 41 bis regime to be placed back into the general prison population.

Italian authorities, jurists and mafia experts argue that only by isolating mafia bosses can chains of command be broken and the activities of criminal groups contained. The harsh conditions have also led criminals to break their code of silence and become informants.

Critics, though, contend the harsh conditions of the 41 bis system — commonly called simply “hard prison” — amount to torture, trample on prisoners' human rights and stand in violation of the Italian Constitution, which requires the state to rehabilitate prisoners.

In 2002, Italy further codified the 41 bis system into the law and expanded its use against members of terrorist groups.

Cospito is the first and only anarchist to be placed into isolation. Prior to him, three members of the New Red Brigade, a paramilitary communist group, were cast into 41 bis system. They were accused in the assassination of two professors involved in liberalizing labor laws in Italy. The professors were shot dead in 1999 and 2002.

Inmates under the 41 bis system are allowed to leave their cells and go outside for just two hours a day, though when they are let out they are surrounded by walls more than 20 feet high.

Inside their small cells, they are given a bed, table and one chair, which is fixed to the floor. Inmates are largely forbidden from possessing personal items, even books, and they are under surveillance 24 hours a day. Contact with prison wardens is extremely limited, as is communication with family members and lawyers.

They are allowed to socialize for one hour a day only with the three other inmates inside the same 41 bis block.
The European Court of Human Rights has found fault with the system but not called for its banishment. The court has ruled that it does not amount to torture even when it has been imposed for lengthy periods of time.

Italy's Constitutional Court also has upheld the 41 bis regime though it has tinkered with how it operates, for instance giving inmates more time to talk with their lawyers and allowing prisoners in 41 bis blocks to exchange among themselves items such as soap, sugar and coffee.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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