Italy | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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Prime Minister Romano Prodi briefly stepped down in February 2007 after losing a key parliamentary vote on foreign policy. He soon returned and gained the support of the more radical members of his center-left coalition, eventually winning a second vote in March on the issue of keeping Italy’s contingent of roughly 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. The first criminal trial involving extraordinary rendition by the CIA was adjourned in June to determine whether prosecutors had broken state security laws. In July, police in central Italy raided a mosque that they said was used as a “bomb school.”

Italy was unified under the constitutional monarchy of Piedmont and Sardinia in the 19th century. Its liberal period ended in 1922 with the rise Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party, which eventually led the country to defeat in World War II. A referendum in 1946 replaced the monarchy with a republican form of government.

The “clean hands” corruption trials of the early 1990s prompted the collapse of the major political factions that had dominated postwar Italian politics—the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists. Since that time, many new parties and coalitions have emerged.

In 1993, a new electoral law replaced the existing system of proportional representation with single-member districts for most of the seats in Parliament. The move was designed to reduce the number of political parties that could obtain seats and ensure a more stable majority for the parties in power; Italians had seen more than 50 governments since 1945. However, in December 2005, proportional representation was restored, with a provision awarding at least 54 percent of the seats in the lower house to the winning party or coalition, no matter how small its margin of victory. A similar arrangement was made for the upper house. Other reforms have included efforts to reduce unnecessary legislation in Parliament and modernize the court system by streamlining the prosecution of cases.

Voters in a June 2006 referendum overwhelmingly rejected a reform package, initially offered by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right government in November 2005, that would have strengthened the role of the prime minister and the administrative and taxing powers of the country’s 20 regions. Critics of the latter provision claimed that it would have widened the economic divide between the wealthy north and the poor south.

Parliamentary elections in April 2006 ushered in a new government led by Romano Prodi, a former prime minister and the former president of the European Commission. His center-left Union bloc, formed in 2004, narrowly won with 49.8 percent of the votes for the lower house. Berlusconi’s House of Freedoms coalition garnered 49.7 percent. Voter turnout was 83.6 percent, well below the postwar average of over 90 percent.

Berlusconi’s five-year premiership, Italy’s longest since World War II, had been marred by his personal domination of the country’s broadcast media through a formidable corporate empire. In March 2007, the trial of Berlusconi and his British lawyer, David Mills, on fraud and money laundering charges began in Milan. It had first started in November 2006 but was quickly halted. In a related case, Berlusconi was accused of false accounting and evading taxes while using offshore companies to purchase rights to U.S. films in the 1990s.

Edoardo Contini, one of the most powerful bosses of the Neapolitan Camorra, was arrested in December after being on the run since 2000. In November, police arrested Salvatore Lo Piccolo, the new boss of the Sicilian Mafia, who had been on the run for 20 years.

In February 2007, Prodi lost a Senate vote on foreign policy goals when the far-left members of his coalition balked at plans to keep troops in Afghanistan and expand a U.S. airbase in Italy. Prodi briefly resigned, but was then asked to resume his duties. In March, he narrowly won a second vote on the Afghanistan mission after most of the opposition abstained. In a shift from Berlusconi’s foreign policy, the Prodi government had pulled Italian troops out of Iraq in November 2006.

The first criminal trial involving extraordinary rendition by the CIA was adjourned soon after it began in June 2007 to determine whether Italian prosecutors had broken state security laws. In February, a judge had acted on prosecutors’ request to indict 25 alleged CIA agents and a U.S. military officer who were accused of helping to abduct a Muslim cleric in Milan with Italy’s permission in 2003. The cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, was allegedly flown to Egypt for interrogation and tortured. Former Italian intelligence officials were also charged in the case. Despite the indictments, the Italian government has declined to seek the U.S. suspects’ extradition to Italy.

In July, Italian police raided a mosque in the central city of Perugia which they described as a “bomb school” for Islamic militants.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Italy is an electoral democracy. Although the role of the president, who is elected for a seven-year term by Parliament and representatives of the regions, is largely ceremonial, Italian presidents have not shied away from taking sides on national political issues. Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist, was selected for the post in May 2006. The president chooses the prime minister, who is often, but not always, a member of the largest party in the 630-seat lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. The upper house is the Senate, with 315 seats. Members of both chambers serve five-year terms. The constitution also divides the country into 20 administrative regions.

In an attempt to appease smaller parties, the right-of-center government of then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in December 2005 reintroduced full proportional representation to Parliament. The reform gives the winning party or coalition a 54 percent majority in the lower house no matter how small its actual margin of victory. For the Senate, victory in a given region assures the winning party or coalition a 55 percent majority of that region’s allotment of seats. Although the center-left opposition Union bloc had strongly opposed the changes, it reaped the benefits after a narrow election victory in 2006. Separately, a 2000 law granting voting rights to the estimated four million Italians living abroad took effect for the first time during the 2006 elections. Twelve deputies and six senators were elected to represent “overseas constituencies” in Europe, North and Central America, South America, and Africa-Asia-Oceania.

The center-left Union bloc (consisting of the Ulivo alliance, Communist Renewal, Federation of Greens, and others) and the center-right House of Freedoms coalition (comprising Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, the post-Fascist National Alliance, the regionalist Northern League, and others) are the main political forces in the country. During 2007, two parties from the Ulivo, the Democratic Party of the Left and the centrist Margherita (Daisy) Party, merged to form the Democratic Party. In October, the party held primaries and elected Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome, as its leader.

Corruption remains an issue in politics despite the changes in government over the past decade. Transparency International gave Italy a rank of 41 out of 180 countries surveyed in its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, one of the worst rankings in Western Europe. Berlusconi was acquitted in October 2007 of charges that he bribed judges to seal a privatization deal in the 1980s, but he continues to face charges for other corruption-related offenses. In June, all five defendants facing murder charges for the death of Roberto Calvi, the chairman of Banco Ambrosiano who was found hanging under a London bridge in 1982, were acquitted. Prosecutors claimed that Calvi had been killed by the Mafia, for whom he had allegedly been laundering money.

Freedom of speech and the press is constitutionally guaranteed. Berlusconi’s defeat in the 2006 elections ended his political control over state television networks, though he continues to hold a dominant share of the private broadcast media through his business empire. A Council of Europe report released in February 2006 found that, despite the ownership concentration of private broadcast outlets, there is considerable diversity of content in the country’s news and other media.

Although there are no current government restrictions on the internet, the government can and does block foreign websites if they violate national laws. In addition, the police monitor websites in an effort to catch child pornographers.

There are many Italian newspapers and news magazines, most of which are based regionally. Newspapers are primarily run by political parties or owned by large media groups.

The 2004 Gasparri law on broadcasting introduced a number of reforms, including preparations for the switch from analog to digital broadcasting. However, the law has been heavily criticized for provisions that served Berlusconi’s interests and enabled him to maintain his control of the private media market. Regulators fined Mediaset, a Berlusconi company, in February 2006 for giving him extra airtime to promote his political campaign. He was also criticized for appearing alone for a debate on the show Liberi Tutti. Additional fines were levied on two Mediaset stations for similar offenses just a few days before the elections.

In April 2007, the Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly passed a bill that regulates the publication of telephone intercept material in the news media. Among other provisions, the bill would allow the state to fine and imprison journalists who violate a ban on publishing a recording after the end of a given investigation. The legislation had not passed the Senate by year’s end.

Freedom of religion is respected and guaranteed by the constitution. Although Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith and the state grants some privileges to the Catholic Church, there is no official religion. The state provides support, if requested, to other sects represented in the country. The government has signed agreements with a number of religious groups but has yet to pass an omnibus religious freedom law. In January 2007, the government said it planned to monitor the funding of mosques to control the influence of foreign governments on the country’s 1.2 million Muslims. Academic freedom is respected and protected.

Italians are free to assemble and form social and political associations, and between 35 and 40 percent of the workforce is unionized. In May 2007, between 500,000 and 1.5 million people attended a “Family Day” rally in Rome to protest the government’s proposal to give homosexual couples new rights in areas such as inheritance. The event, which was supported by the Vatican and Italy’s Catholic bishops, was confronted by a counterdemonstration attended by International Trade and European Affairs Minister Emma Bonino.

The judicial system is undermined by long trial delays and the influence of organized crime. Trial delays are caused in part by effectively open-ended pretrial investigations, a lack of judicial personnel and other resources, vague or contradictory laws, and the host of minor offenses in the penal code. A 2006 law reduced sentences on many minor crimes, considerably lowering the country’s prison population. The U.S. State Department’s human rights report for 2006 stated that from June to November, the number of inmates dropped from 61,300 to 39,200.

Despite legal prohibitions against torture, there have been reports of excessive use of force by police, particularly against illegal immigrants. In January 2007, key evidence in the trial of 29 police officers, which began in October 2005 and continued through 2007, was lost. The evidence in question was two Molotov cocktails. The defendants are accused of orchestrating and participating in a campaign of brutality against protesters at the 2001 Group of 8 summit in Genoa.

Italy is a major port of entry for undocumented immigrants trying to reach Europe; large numbers of people from Africa, the Middle East, China, and South Asia continue to arrive on the country’s shores. A 2005 report by Amnesty International alleged that illegal immigrants detained in Italy are kept in overcrowded and unhygienic holding centers and denied access to lawyers and other experts, making it impossible for them to challenge detention or deportation orders. Amnesty International has also reported that minors are routinely held in such detention centers, a violation of human rights laws and standards. In November, when a Romanian immigrant was arrested for the violent murder of an Italian woman, the government passed a decree that allows the police and judiciary to expel immigrants if they are considered a threat to public order. The decree passed a Senate vote by a slim majority in December.

Strict fertility laws, strongly supported by the Vatican and Catholic politicians, remain in effect after a 2005 referendum aimed at relaxing the statutes failed to muster the required 50 percent voter turnout. The laws prevent sperm and egg donations and ban the screening of embryos for disease. Italian bishops and the pope had encouraged voters to boycott the referendum on moral grounds.

Women benefit from liberal maternity-leave provisions and government efforts to ensure parity in the workforce. Women also have considerable educational opportunities. However, violence against women continues to be a problem. Female political representation has improved somewhat; about 17 percent of the 630 candidates elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 2006 were women, a six-point increase over the last elections in 2001.

Italy is a destination and transit country for the trafficking of women and children for sexual and labor exploitation. However, the government has made efforts to tackle the problem, particularly in the area of prosecution, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report. The government carried out a major antitrafficking operation in late 2006 and early 2007 that produced nearly 800 arrests and touched off ongoing investigations of about 1,300 people. The government also offers support to the victims of trafficking by financing nongovernmental organizations that work with immigrants.