Mimmo Lucano, defender of migrants, sentenced to 13 years in jail

By Dave Kellaway

Yesterday a court in Italy handed down a sentence of more than 13 years to a former mayor of Riace, a small town in Calabria in the South of Italy. The court actually doubled the six years that the prosecuting counsel had been demanding. 

His crime: ‘Favouring’ illegal immigration, misappropriating public funds and conducting false marriages.  We all need to remember his name – Mimmo Lucano. This sentence reflects a political and class vendetta against people challenging Fortress Europe and defending the inalienable human rights of people seeking asylum or fleeing terrible living conditions. Fortune magazine a few years ago put him on a list of the greatest leaders.

Mimmo used his leadership to welcome migrants and asylum seekers to his town.  Such towns in rural southern regions are becoming depopulated as younger people move to bigger towns or the north. Young immigrant families could help give life and energy back to such areas.  He lobbied to get state and EU funds to help set up cooperatives to farm abandoned land, to set up workshops and to run the town refuse services. Anyone who has lived in Italy knows at first hand the byzantine complexity and slowness of the administrative bureaucracy. It is possible that the Mayor might have skirted some corners and made a few minor mistakes in his paperwork. 

It is an intensely ecological project because the conditions of the land deteriorate as depopulation increases. Landslides and flooding risks get worse if nobody is looking after the land. When a small town or village loses all its younger working people it has negative social and health effects on the older people left there. Demographic projections confirm this reality will continue throughout Italy and most of Europe. 

Migrants are already vital in sustaining a reasonable care service for older people. Most families want their ageing parents to stay in their homes so they pay mostly migrant younger people to come and live in and care for them on a 24/7 basis. These ‘badantes’ or carers provide a wonderful service at an extraordinarily cheap cost if you compare their rates to agency prices here in Britain.

Lucano had set up a number of cooperatives to encourage local regeneration projects. This is a model which is superior to what exists currently here, where most asylum seekers are not allowed to work.  It is unsurprising that Keir Starmer failed to include this category when he went on and on about the glory of work in his epic speech.

A great fuss was made by the prosecution about the ‘false marriages’ that supposedly took place under Lucano’s prompting. The case of an older man marrying a young black woman was allegedly the proof of the mayor’s perfidy.  This case was of a Nigerian who had been forced into prostitution and was at risk.  Just compare this with the thousands of older Italian men (often in rural areas) who get married to younger Thai or Pilipino women, sometimes through the agencies of the local Catholic Church. To what extent those marriages are romantic love matches is unclear, but, needless to say, the law does not carry out a vicious crusade against them.

The state has accused Lucano of mismanaging funds. They are demanding the reimbursement of 500,000 euros. Even his accusers accept that Mimmo has made no personal financial gains at all. Indeed he did not have any funds to pay his lawyers who are working pro bono for him in solidarity. His wife works cleaning people’s houses. Quite the opposite of what has happened in places like Lazio (Rome region) where the hard right and even fascists have been accused of running cooperatives at a big profit and siphoning off the funds for their own purposes. The services provided by those cooperatives were scandalously poor.

A fundamental problem with the law is how the crime of ‘favouring illegal immigration’ does not make any distinction between gangsters making huge profits from it and humanitarians like Lucano. Salvini managed to increase the tariffs for such crimes when he was interior minister.

In a situation where practically all the political parties, including the self-defined ‘left of centre’ PD, (Democratic Party), have either adopted a racist attitude to migrants or have failed to adequately support them, it is people like Mimmo who stepped up and actually did something. Even the progressive Catholic community has been more supportive that the official ‘progressive parties’.

Mimmo’s treatment contrasts with the punishment meted to people like Berlusconi. He was officially found guilty of fraud and avoided sentencing on many other big fiscal scandals, but never did a day in prison.  He was given community service so he could go and sing in a few residential care homes. There are literally thousands of cases in Italy where corporate fraudsters with armies of lawyers manage to drag out their trials for years and never end up paying for their crimes.

Riace is in Calabria, the heart of the ‘Ndragheta criminal clan which infiltrates all levels of government there, particularly ‘influencing’ the right wing parties like Forza Italia (Berlusconi), Fratelli d’Italia (Meloni) and La Lega (Salvini). Sentencing a defender of human rights and an anti-racist while this criminal clan is relatively immune from prosecution despite controlling significant sectors of the legitimate and criminal economy, highlights a glaring injustice.

A friend from Italy messaged me yesterday explaining that Mimmo was offered a slot on a slate for the European elections which if he won would have given him immunity. He turned it down saying his place was in Calabria. Currently he is part of a list led by the former Mayor of Naples, Di Magistris, standing in the upcoming regional election taking place this Sunday and Monday.

Public support for Lucano has come from the leader of the PD, Enrico Letta and the parliamentary groups to its left, as well as from the leader of the Five Star Movement, Conte.  They condemn the size of the sentence while ‘respecting’ the court’s role in making it. They also warn that such rulings will weaken people’s trust in the legal system. 

Groups on the radical left, like Sinistra Anticapitalista, have condemned it as a class vendetta and called for his exoneration and release form his current house arrest. Salvini has exulted saying that the left is running a candidate who is facing a 13 year sentence. The right wing generally claim the left of centre parties are hypocritical, eager to see right wing candidates prosecuted and supporting the judges who sentence them – but not over Mimmo Lucano.

Mimmo will be appealing and his future will not just depend on the vagaries of the court but on the strength of the national and perhaps international campaign in his favour. We will publicise details of how we can support him as soon as we receive them.  Il Manifesto, the left wing daily newspaper is highlighting his case. Some of its writers are calling on President Matarella to give him a pardon. Of course the problem with such a tactic is that it acknowledges in some way his responsibility for a crime.

The case of Mimmo Lucano puts into perspective all the verbiage we heard from Keir Starmer two days ago about following the rules, alongside his silence on the fate of migrants crossing the channel. Mimmo followed the rules of human and class solidarity. We salute him.

Sign the petition here

Dave Kellaway is a member of Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party and a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts