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Justice in Genova

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Issue: 56 Section: International News Geography: Europe Genova Topics: police brutality

October 3, 2008

Justice in Genova

Police who beat and tortured international activists sentenced

by Sara Falconer

Thousands of files were used by activists to convict Italian police in 2008 of crimes committed in Genova in 2001.

On July 21, 2001, activists attending the G8 demonstrations in Genova, Italy, were attacked in a schoolhouse where they slept, mercilessly beaten by police, and subsequently tortured for days at the hands of guards and doctors.

Two Canadians who were among those beaten say they will never forget those awful nights and days. For them, part of the healing process is acknowledging the brutality at home and continuing to take a stand against it.

"We were travelling in southern and eastern Europe and had met Greek anarchists, Kurdish revolutionaries, Italian activists and squatters," recalls Kara Sievewright, an activist and artist based in Vancouver. "Earlier in our trip we had gone to a large demonstration in Napoli against the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developments (OECD) Global Forum."

She had been traveling with David Cunningham, an organizer with Vancouver's Anti-Poverty Committee and a writer for Direct Action magazine. "We went to Genova to join what was billed as the largest street battle in the history of the anti-globalisation movement," he says. Between 100,000 and 200,000 converged on the city and were met by a heavy-handed response from the Carabiniere, Italy's military police force. Black Bloc members increasingly engaged in direct confrontation with police, and on July 19, 23-year-old Carlos Giuliani, an unarmed Italian protestor, was shot to death by the Carabiniere.

Sievewright and Cunningham were staying at Diaz School, along with activists from Italy, Britain, Poland and Ireland. "It was advertised publicly as the headquarters for the Pink Bloc who openly organised on passive grounds," Cunningham says. "The cops didn't understand the sectarian difference and attacked the Pink as if they were Black Bloc."

Shortly after midnight on July 21, police swarmed into the building, rousing the startled occupants with shouts and blows.

"I remember the people screaming 'polizia, polizia,' and the sound of the riot police banging down the door. I remember looking out the window of the third floor and seeing a wave of shiny blue helmets swelling into the gates and through the doors of the school," says Sievewright. "I remember the shock on the faces of the first medics who were allowed into the building, and I remember the absolute terror and fear of the people who'd been beaten."

"I remember a lot of pacifists who could not believe that it was happening to them," Cunningham adds.

The schoolhouse was dubbed the "Slaughterhouse" by Indymedia reporters and radical press. Pictures circulated of walls and floors smeared with blood, of young men and women being carried unconscious through the front doors. Three activists, including British journalist Mark Covell, were left in comas, and one sustained permanent brain damage. Ninety-three people were arrested, many taken to a temporary detention camp established at Bolzaneto, six miles from Genova.

"I was beaten pretty badly, mostly on my back," Cunningham says. "I had zigzagging bruises on my back in the shape of the batons handles. My head was split open."

Shockingly, some of the worst treatment he received was at the hands of doctors. "I was in some kind of military hospital for two days."

"There, the 'doctors' worked with the police to get information from us. We were not allowed to sleep, as the pigs would smash batons off bed posts."

Afterwards, he was transferred to a men's prison for several days. "In prison we were made to sing fascist songs. Because I would not, I was kicked repeatedly, and put in an isolation cell away from the others. Guards would rush my cell and tell me that they would 'rape my girlfriend' and 'kill me in my sleep.'"

Meanwhile, similar emotional and physical anguish was being visited on the women who were detained, Sievewright says. "I was taken to a hospital for one night because they thought I had a head injury but I was lucky to get away with only major bruising on my legs and arms. The police came to the hospital in the morning, arrested me and took me to the Bolzaneto detention centre. I was there for about 30 hours in a small cell with about 30 other women from the school. Most of them had been there all night and had been forced to stand while sustaining head injuries, broken arms, fingers, noses, teeth, bruising and bleeding. They had been forced to sing fascist songs and threatened with rape. All night we heard screaming and banging. We were told that we were to be raped and tortured."

After days of threats and humiliation, Sievewright and Cunningham were released. "Upon our release from the detention center, a group of Marxist Leninists took us underground for a few days, as we were supposed to be out of the country immediately," Cunningham says. "I believe that there was support from the anarchists in general and the Black Cross in specific."

The schoolhouse where activists were attacked was dubbed "The Slaughterhouse" by Indymedia reporters.

In the years following the attack, Sievewright and Cunningham traveled back to Italy to testify in a legal case that was organized by a local group under the banner Processi G8. As they struggle to come to terms with what they experienced, their resilience is as evident in their gallows humour as it is in their ongoing commitment to organizing for social justice.

"Though the impact of my experiences in Genova have lessened over the last seven years, I definitely had some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and on occasion it still haunts me. And Genova didn't do much for my love of police officers," Sievewright says dryly. "Witnessing and experiencing political violence in Genova was a big motivator in getting more actively involved in political organizing in Canada."

The experience has shaped Cunningham's activism as well. "Political violence as a threat from the state here in Vancouver is less terrifying, as I believe I have survived the worst that I might be subjected to, given my relative privilege as a white activist in occupied Canada," he says. "Here I've only had [police] throw me through a glass window and later break a rib that pierced my lung!"

On July 15, after a three-year trial, verdicts were handed down by the Italian court. Fifteen officials were given sentences ranging from five months to five years. Thirty others were cleared of charges. Defendants will each receive 10,000 Euros and upwards in damages. The decision is considered an embarrassment to Silvio Berlusconi's right wing government, in power both then and now. In 2005, 29 officers were indicted for grievous bodily harm, planting evidence and wrongful arrest for the raid on the on the Diaz School. By 2003, all of the activists arrested that night had been cleared of all charges including resisting arrest.

The commander of the Bolzaneto camp, Biagio Gugliotta, received a five-year sentence. The chief doctor, Giacomo Toccafondi, was given a 14-month sentence, accused of failing to intervene when detainees were sprayed with asphyxiating gas.

"I know that most of the people involved in the case were disappointed in the verdict – only a fraction of the accused were convicted and most of them were given little jail time – but to be honest I was surprised that the police, the officials and the doctors were convicted, sentenced or given any jail time at all," Sievewright admits. "I know that a couple of years or months in prison, that they will likely not even serve, is little compared to the trauma and abuse that they afflicted on the hundreds of people in the detention centre; and it is small compared to the 25 people out of the 300,000, convicted of rioting and property damage who were given a collective total of 110 years of jail.

"But generally throughout the world people in positions of power are rarely brought to justice through the legal system. In Canada there have been numerous cases of people dying in the hands of the police ― Frank Paul, Robert Dziekanski, and most recently the 18-year-old in Montreal [Fredy Alberto Villanueva, killed August 10], to name a few – and in these cases, as in other cases, it is unlikely that the police will even be made to stand trial."

"I feel no closure," Cunningham says simply. "Fascism is on the rise in Europe and is making a resurgence here. Unless a militant force can organize to challenge them in the street, Carlos' death and the brutalities at the Diaz School and detention centres will be remembered in vain, with the current legal cases producing only symbolic legal victories void of any real justice."

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