Italy plans tough new measures against rioters

October 18, 2011

By Barry Moody

ROME, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Italy’s interior minister, under fire for failing to prevent the worst riots in Rome for years, is to propose reviving a law from the country’s bloody “years of lead” to combat violent protests.

Roberto Maroni was due to address parliament later on Tuesday to give details of his response to Saturday’s riots, which have led to much national handwringing over why Italy was the only country where a global “day of rage” against the financial system turned violent.

Maroni said he agreed with opposition politician Antonio Di Pietro, a former magistrate, who suggested reviving a law from the 1970s, when Italy was racked by leftwing protests and urban guerrilla violence that came close to destabilising the state.

The law allowed police to use firearms, when necessary, and banned the wearing of helmets or masks during demonstrations. It also provided for preventive detention of demonstrators suspected of planning violence.

Other measures under consideration are the extension of laws created against violent football supporters to public demonstrations and the use of coloured dye in high powered hoses used against rioters, as well as accelerated trials for those arrested.

Italy’s legal system is notoriously slow and inefficient. Critics of Maroni, including some judges, said what was needed was the proper application of existing laws and a major boost to police resources rather than new measures.

The proposals are a reaction to national shock and frustration that a few hundred so-called “black bloc” rioters were able to hijack a demonstration by tens of thousands of peaceful protesters against Italy’s economic crisis despite warnings well in advance that violence was likely.

The highly organised, masked and helmeted rioters overwhelmed and outflanked police.

Members of the peaceful demonstration told a radio phone-in programme on Tuesday that the police seemed uncertain how to react even when protesters grabbed rioters and tried to hand them over. Only 12 people were arrested during the riots.

POLICE PROTESTS

Police unions have fiercely criticised the government, saying cost-cutting has reduced both their income and resources. They protested outside parliament ahead of Maroni’s speech.

Policemen posting comments on an internet forum complained bitterly about low wages and said they were reluctant to charge rioters for of fear of being charged with excessive force, as they were a decade ago when a protester was killed during riots around a G-8 meeting in Genoa.

The riots have rapidly turned into a political dispute with the fragile centre-right coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accusing the left of fomenting discontent and opposition politicians charging that Maroni underestimated the potential for violence despite secret service warnings.

Many of the black bloc rioters are thought to have learned their techniques during a series of protests in northwestern Italy against a high speed rail link to France. More violence is feared during protests there next weekend.

Police have carried out raids in several cities since the riots and searched youth centres known to harbour extremist and anarchist sympathisers.

On Tuesday they arrested a student accused of being the protester shown in one of the most widely used photographs of the riots throwing a fire extinguisher.

The Rome demonstration, which by some estimates involved 200,000 people, was the biggest in the weekend of global protests. It was fuelled by resentment and despair at the government’s failure to produce viable plans to restore growth to an economy at a virtual standstill for more than a decade.

This mood has been aggravated by a 60 billion euro ($83 billion) austerity plan including increases in taxes and the cost of healthcare. Italy’s youth unemployment, at 28 percent, is one of the highest in the euro zone. (Editing By Barry Moody)

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