Filed under: International Coverage
The following is a primer on the Italian state’s repression of anarchist fighter Alfredo Cospito, who is currently engaging in a hunger strike in prison that has exceeded 100 days. Solidarity actions have taken place across the world, leading to the Italian state recently putting their embassies on alert. Alfredo’s courage and commitment to his struggle is an inspiration, however, his health is in rapid decline, and support is urgently needed as he faces a fascist state regime which seeks to make an example of him.
Why are Italian anarchists intensifying actions recently?
On October 19th Alfredo Cospito, an Italian insurrectionary anarchist began a hunger strike against his conditions at Sassari prison on the island of Sardinia. It has now been over a hundred days, and as his medical condition worsens, protests against his treatment have become increasingly volatile. Recently, in the traditionally working-class area of Trastevere in Rome (currently experiencing rapid gentrification), the police fought in a series of skirmishes with protesters; in Turin a cell tower was lit on fire; while in Livorno, an envelope containing bullets and a threatening letter reading “if Alfredo Cospito dies judges will all be targets, two months without food, burn down the prisons’, was sent to the editor of a newspaper. The reason for his strike goes back to April 2022 when, after six years of imprisonment among the general prison population, he was transferred to a ‘41-bis’ regime, known also as a ‘hard prison’, that includes substantial restrictions on even the most basic of freedoms.
Exacerbating this has been the decision in December by the Italian courts to upgrade his sentence, from twenty years to life without parole. Although on January 30th, 2022 he was moved to Opera prison in Milan in order to receive improved medical treatment, he continues to be kept in a 41-bis regime and faces an uncertain future.
The case has been the subject of growing public debate for several months now, much of it revolving around the question of the proportionality of Cospito’s sentence, given he was found guilty six years ago of a crime that resulted in neither death nor injury. His hunger strike – one of the few forms of non-violent protest available to prisoners in his position – has renewed the attention paid to his story and to the use of extreme forms of detention with prisoners deemed ‘highest risk’, a category which most believe should not include Cospito.
What is 41-bis?
On December 19th, 2022 the Surveillance Court in Rome rejected a complaint made by Cospito’s lawyer, Flavio Rossi Albertini, against the application of 41-bis, meaning that its use was effectively approved without appeal for the next four years. The reason given by the Court was that ‘ordinary detention status, even in a high-security prison, wouldn’t be enough to adequately reduce the elevated risk of behaviours aimed at exercising, on the part of Alfredo Cospito, his role as leader of the group to which he belongs’.
41-bis was thus extended after the Court affirmed that there was a risk that Cospito would give orders to other members of his organisation, justifying hard prison, a form of detention usually reserved for prisoners convicted of involvement in organised crime, on the grounds that it would restrict his ability to communicate with the outside world.
The 41-bis regime involves a series of extremely restrictive measures, among which are: isolation from other prisoners; limits to time spent outside of your cell (only two hours, and this too in isolation); limited visits (only with family members, with a glass divider, and with no physical contact permitted), a permanently open observation window on your cell, and the denial of newspapers and books.
In Italy, 41-bis has long been the subject of heated debate, with the European Court of Human Rights ruling it a form of torture in 2019. Even within the political establishment many have begun to ask for its abolition, arguing it to be an anti-constitutional carceral tool, contrary to the goal of re-education supposedly at the heart of the penal system (Article 27 of the Italian Constitution states that any punishment must ‘tend towards the re-education of the convict’). Others, however, continue to argue for its preservation as a tool of carceral power. It has a long history, tied to the period of revolutionary terrorism that shook Italy in the 1970s, but first took its current form in the shake up to the prison system that followed the violent attacks carried out by the Sicilian mafia in 1992. Declaring open war against the state, the mafia assassinated several members of the judiciary they viewed as a threat to their power, killing, among others, the investigating judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. The application of the 41-bis regime to Cospito therefore reflects the dubious idea, held by the judiciary, that his relationship with his comrades in the anarchist movement is comparable to that which pertaining between imprisoned mafia bosses and their subordinates outside.
Who is Alfredo Cospito?
Cospito is 55 years old. While born in the seaside town of Pescara on Italy’s Adriatic coast, before his arrest he was a long-time resident of Turin, where he lived with his partner and comrade Anna Beiamino (also in prison), running a tattoo parlour in the San Salvario area of the city. Both identify themselves with the FAI-FRI (Informal Anarchist Federation – International Revolutionary Front). This is not to be confused with the Italian Anarchist Federation, who also use the acronym FAI; whereas the Italian Anarchist Federation opposes violence as a tactic, the Informal Anarchist Federation is a proponent of armed struggle against the state, capitalism and Marxism, all three of which it considers propagators of oppressive authoritarianism. Since their foundation in 2003, the FAI-FRI has made links with groups in several other countries, including Greece, Spain, Indonesia, Russia, Mexico, and Argentina; attacks on infrastructure around Bristol between 2012-2014 – including that on a newly constructed police firearms training centre that was estimated to cause damage worth £18 million – have been attributed to an offshoot of the group.
The FAI-FRI is composed of a number of cells, all acting autonomously from one another and describing themselves as ‘informal’ to mark their opposition to both hierarchy and any membership model of organisation. Cospito’s lawyer Rossi Albertini, while speaking to Radio Radicale, has said that ‘in my opinion, the judges of the Surveillance Court haven’t at all understood what is specific about the organisation they are attempting to prohibit, equating it incorrectly to a model of organised crime and hierarchical organisation, with its system of bosses and organisers, when not even the Court of Assizes, who first ruled – with many caveats – that the FAI-FRI was an organisation, claimed that Cospito was any sort of leader. It’s an oxymoron, a contradiction, to think that a horizontal structure, as the same judges in Turin ruled it to be, could have a leader.’
In 2013 Cospito was condemned to ten years and eight months in prison for having shot Roberto Adinolfi, a manager of engineering firm Ansaldo, in the leg. Ansaldo is a major producer of fossil and nuclear power plants, and in a handwritten speech that he attempted to deliver during his trial, Cospito explained that he had carried out the attack as part of a struggle against the authoritarian ‘technological society’. Already inside, he was then accused of having placed, some time during the night between the 2nd and 3rd of June 2006, two explosive devices in front of the Carabinieri training college in Fossano, a town south of Turin in the province of Cuneo. The explosion resulted in neither deaths nor injuries. Both bombs, which exploded within half an hour of each other, had been made using a pressure cooker and a metal tube with 800 grams of explosive material inside.
At the subsequent trial in Turin the judges decided to define the FAI-FRI as a terrorist organisation, basing their decision on evidence that Rossi Albertini described as ‘a document that appears to be a set of minutes for a meeting of eight people taking stock of the recent actions of the Informal Anarchist Federation’. Cospito and Anna Beniamino were condemned to 20 and 16 years imprisonment respectively, according to the terms of Article 422 of the Italian penal code: ‘Whoever […] with the aim of murder carries out such acts as endanger the public safety will be punished, if their actions lead to the death of several persons, with life imprisonment. It they should cause the death of a single person, life imprisonment shall apply. In any other case no less than fifteen years of imprisonment shall apply.’
The judges, in their appeal ruling, wrote that it was only by chance that the attack had not injured anyone. The interval between the first and second bombs, according to the judges, ‘would have been more than enough time to ensure the presence of first responders with the emergency services’.
After his conviction Cospito was placed in a high-security prison for inmates convicted of crimes involving criminal conspiracy, and subjected to stricter surveillance along with certain other limitations, but was otherwise guaranteed basic rights and safeguards. Cospito could, for example, still write for anarchist publications, something which he continued to do. After six years however, in 2022, the Minister of Justice decided to transfer him to a 41-bis regime ‘without’, as Rossi Albertini explained, ‘any new evidence coming to light’.
At the time, Justice Minister Marta Cartabia justified the application of 41-bis to Cospito on the grounds of the ‘numerous messages that, during his detention, he has sent to recipients outside of the prison system; including documents addressed to his anarchist comrades, and designed explicitly to continue their struggle against domination, particularly through the violent tactics which they consider most effective’. However, even according to the version of the story put out by the Justice Ministry, Cospito did not send these messages in secret, but through texts published in anarchist magazines and periodicals. For this reason, according to Rossi Albertini, if the state had wished to limit the publication of these articles, it would have been sufficient simply to put stricter controls on his post or put in place a specific measure aimed at curtailing this activity.
‘Instead,’ says Rossi Albertini, ‘six years after the sentencing it was decided to place him under this new, more restrictive form of detention. Cospito was transferred from Terni prison, where he had previously been detained, to Sassari. He is the first anarchist with whom such a measure has been implemented. He defines himself as an anarcho-individualist, which is in further contradiction with the role of leader attributed to him’.
How can you be convicted for a massacre with no victims?
The other reason that propelled Cospito into starting his hunger strike was the threat (now realised) that his sentence might be upgraded to life without parole, and without the option of any future reduction or change in sentence.
Again, to understand how this could even be a possibility, you have to understand the legal journey that Cospito has been on. For the Fossano attack, Cospito was condemned to twenty years in prison (a decision later confirmed by a court of appeal), on the basis of Article 422 of the penal code, for the crime of ‘common massacre’ (since the crime of ‘attempted massacre’ does not exist). On the request of the public prosecutor, however, in May the Court of Cassation decided that the crime for which Cospito should have been prosecuted was rather that of ‘political massacre’. Finding in particular that Article 285 of the penal code should have been applied to his case. This article declares that ‘whoever, with the aim of attacking the security of the state, commits an act directed at bringing about devastation, looting, or a massacre in the territory of the state or a part thereof shall be punished with life imprisonment.’
The difference between these two articles is more than simply formal: Article 285 requires that life imprisonment be applied even where the attack was victimless. Furthermore, the gravity of the crime makes it more than likely that the sentence will be extended to life without parole, a punishment automatically applied to the most serious of crimes and one that excludes the possibility of receiving even the most basic of privileges within prison, (unless the person convicted subsequently decides to cooperate with the justice system, turn ‘pentiti’ as it is known).
Even stranger is that fact that in both the case of the Capaci and via d’Amelio assassinations (the former killing Falcone and four others, the latter Borsellino and five others), and before that in the case of the Bologna Station bombing of 1980 (attributed to the far right with the assistance of the Italian secret service, in which eighty members of the public died), Article 422 – ‘common massacre’ – was the article that the magistrature chose to apply. According to Rossi Albertini, it makes no sense that the Fossano attack, which led to neither death nor injury, should be treated as a more serious crime than any of these.
The Court of Cassation accepted the prosecutor’s request, however, referring the case to the Turin Court of Appeal. At the same time, the public prosecutor requested that Cospito be upgraded to a life sentence and placed under twenty-four-hour isolation for twelve months, and that his accomplice Anna Beniamino be handed an increased sentence of twenty-seven years and one month. On December 19th, 2022 the Turin Court of Appeal in turn referred the case to the Constitutional Court in Rome, requesting they rule on whether – as the defence has long maintained – the relatively minor nature of Cospito’s crime might be considered a mitigating factor in sentencing.
Cospito, having been repeatedly charged with the same or similar offences, is theoretically unable to request any such readjustment of his sentence according to either mitigating or aggravating factors. And without such a readjustment, Cospito’s sentence will inevitably be life in prison, as requested by the public prosecutor. But Cospito’s lawyers have requested that the Constitutional Court to rule on whether preventing the assessment of mitigating factors, where the defendant is considered a ‘recidivist’, is in any way constitutional. And on this decision hangs the question of whether or not Cospito will receive a sentence of life without parole.
If Cospito’s hopes regarding his life sentence lie with the Constitutional Court, his removal from the 41-bis regime is a matter for the Court of Cassation. But, as Rossi Albertini has explained, ‘the time frame for this decision does not fit with the urgency of [Cospito’s] hunger strike’; that is, Cospito will most likely be forced to suspend the strike due to his failing health before his legal case moves forward, or will die before any decision is reached. There is also the technical possibility that the Justice Minister, Carlo Nordio (who got his start investigating the Red Brigades in the 1980s), could intervene, but this appears fairly remote given the extreme right-wing nature of the current government.
What happens next?
By the end of November Cospito had already lost 22 kilos and was showing signs of declining health. Appearing at court in Turin to hear their decision on the change to his sentence, he said: ‘I’ve been portrayed as a butcher and it has even been said that I am an explosives expert. You can say what you like about me, but I’m not a hypocrite. I only committed one violent act: I shot a man in the leg in Genoa because I didn’t want to use explosives [against him]. As an anarchist, I have always taken responsibility for the things that I have done with honour. It is absurd that two attacks in the middle of the night, in deserted locations, that did not kill or injure, and could not have killed or injured anyone, can be considered a ‘political massacre’. In the future I plan to cast doubt on the idea that I am a butcher.’
For the last month the Italian anarchist movement has continued to protest in support of Alfredo Cospito, and yet more protests are expected in the coming days. In cities across the country graffiti has appeared calling for the abolition of 41-bis and for the freeing of Cospito and all other political prisoners. Protests, some heated, have taken place in Rome, Turin, Milan, Florence, Livorno and other major centres of the anarchist movement in the last few weeks. Criticism of Cospito’s treatment has also come from many people and organisations far removed from the anarchist movement. Indeed, his story is now on the front page of most national newspapers, a point of heated discussion in parliament and on the radio, the threat of his nearing death putting ever greater pressure on the government to reform the 41-bis regime.
According to his lawyer, Cospito intends to go forward with his hunger strike even if it leads to ‘the most extreme consequences’. Cospito himself has said in court that ‘I will not give up, I will continue my hunger strike to the last breath in order to fight for the abolition of 41-bis and life without parole, and to make the world aware of these two repressive abominations.’