From the streets of Minneapolis to the mass protests opposing the military coup in Myanmar, unlawful use of force by police continues to end in death and injury. The recent vigil to honour the brutally murdered Sarah Everard turned into police brutality. Has police violence and torture ever affected Italy?
Police brutality and human rights: what is their relation?
The term “police brutality” usually refers to several human rights violations committed by the police forces and bodies, including unjustified shootings, beatings, fatal choking, torture or other ill-treatment acts, and indiscriminate use of riot control agents during protests. In its worst cases, the unlawful, unnecessary or excessive use of force can result in people being deprived of their right to life, therefore clearly violating human rights principles. Furthermore, unlawful acts of force committed by police forces can also entail violations of people’s right to security, liberty and equal protection under the law.
Police abuse and excessive use of force are explicitly prohibited by the major international human rights treaties and conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Specific ad hoc instruments also regulate the conduct of police officers, such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (BPUFF). It must be remembered that States are always responsible for the violations of human rights committed by their bodies – including by police officers, whose use of lethal force should only be chosen as a last resort act either to protect themselves or other people from an imminent threat of death or serious injury, or if the other options for de-escalation are insufficient.
Notwithstanding the existence of the abovementioned international instruments and the governments’ duty to incorporate human rights law into their domestic legislation, police officers often greet each new report of brutality by denying the excessive or unnecessary use of violence they are accused of. At the same time, the complainants continue to face enormous and evident barriers in seeking administrative punishment or criminal prosecution of the police officers responsible for the unlawful exercise of their duty, which therefore often remain unpunished and undermine people’s trust in the justice system.
The increasing awareness and condemnation of police brutality around the world
The excessive and unlawful use of force by the police, as well as its legal and judicial implications, have been debated by scholars and commentators for years. Although international human rights law provides that police operations must be proportional and sufficiently regulated by domestic law and minimise the risk of loss of life, the frequent episodes of unlawful lethal use of force around the world have raised the international community’s concern and led millions of people to take the streets and organise anti-police brutality protests, especially after the brutal killing of George Floyd in May 2020. From small towns to metropolis, the excessive use of force by police officers has demonstrated how problematic law enforcement is in the United States and the policemen’s unlawful acts have been condemned by international groups, human rights activists and civil rights organizations.
In Myanmar, mass protests have been taking place across the country after the military seized control on 1 February 2021. Police officers have opened fire on protesters and killed more than 400 people since the beginning of the demonstrations. Police violence and brutality is endemic also across Latin America, where protests are usually met with excessive and deadly force, and police officers are often themselves involved in violent crimes but rarely persecuted at the domestic level.
Moreover, in France, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom, racially and gender motivated police violence and torture are on the rise but often remain unpunished. However, Italy is not exempt from serious acts of police brutality, an issue that became of public interest especially after the death of Carlo Giuliani, in 2001, during protests against the Genoa G8 Summit and the case brought by Arnaldo Cestaro before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Yesterday – 7 April 2021 – marked the sixth anniversary of an historic judgement of the ECtHR, which found Italy in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), namely the prohibition of torture, and demonstrated that despite all governments have a duty to incorporate international human rights law into their domestic legislation, many have often failed to do this adequately.
The case Cestaro v. Italy at the ECtHR
Since the beginning of its activity, the ECtHR has analysed several cases involving the use of torture and lethal force by the police officers, with a specific focus on the unlawful acts that took place during demonstrations. In 2011, the Cestaro v. Italy case (application no. 6884/11) raised the debate of the crime of torture in Italy and highlighted how the Italian criminal law system of the time was inadequate and ineffective in deterring potential future crimes.
The applicant, Arnaldo Cestaro, participated in the demonstrations against the 27th G8 Summit that took place in Genoa from 19 to 21 July 2001. Despite the Italian authorities had put in place large-scale security arrangements, several incidents involving clashes with the police, ransacking, vandalism, violence and damage took place in the city and hundreds of demonstrators and police officers were injured or incapacitated by tear gas. During the night, a riot squad stormed the Diaz-Pertini school – which the Genoa city council had made available to the demonstrators as a night shelter – to carry out a search. Mr Cestaro was inside the school, “sitting with his back to the wall with his arms raised” when he was hit several times by the police officers, who caused him multiple fractures and injuries from which he never fully recovered.
Although some police officers were sentenced to between two and four years’ imprisonment and to the payment of costs and damages to the civil parties, including €35,000 to Mr Cestaro, the victim filed a complaint to the ECtHR, considering that the penalty had been inadequate and claiming that Italy had failed to take all the necessary steps to prevent the ill-treatment and violence he had been victim of. At the international level, the case gained an immediate attention because the officers were prosecuted for the injuries they had caused to the complainant but not for the crime of torture itself, which did not exist in the Italian criminal law system and therefore ensured impunity for the police officers responsible for their violent unlawful acts.
On 7 April 2015, the final judgement of the ECtHR highlighted that Italy’s violation of Article 3 of the ECHR was dual in nature: on a procedural ground, due to the lack of adequate investigations and punishment for the officers responsible for the act of torture itself; and on a substantive ground, since anti-riot police had made use of force without a real justification, ignoring the powerlessness of the applicant and without receiving any precise instructions on the measures to be put in place. Therefore, the ill treatment against Mr Cestaro was “intentional and premeditated”.
Where does Italy stand now?
Although Italy has made remarkable efforts in adopting certain legislative and administrative measures to cope with police brutality and torture, these are still not being fully respected. Many episodes of police violence are still common against Roma and immigrants, as well as in Italian prisons and detention centres, as demonstrated by the case of Stefano Cucchi – who died in custody in 2009 – and Riccardo Magherini – who died for asphyxiation after an officer kneeled on his back for several minutes. However, the Cestaro v. Italy case was a landmark decision for both Italy and the other European countries that signed and ratified the ECHR. Since then, an increasing attention has been given to the police violence and torture, which remain, however, not as widespread as they are in the US.