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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Italy

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1997
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Italy, 30 January 1997, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997


Italy is a longstanding, multiparty parliamentary democracy. Executive authority is vested in the Council of Ministers, headed by the President of the Council (the Prime Minister). The Head of State (the President of the Republic) nominates the Prime Minister after consulting with leaders of all political forces in Parliament. Parliament was elected in free and democratic elections in April. The judiciary is independent, but critics complain that some magistrates are politicized.

The armed forces are under the control of the Government and Parliament. There are four separate police forces under different ministerial or local authorities. Under exceptional circumstances, the Government may call on the army to provide security. The army supports the police in general guard duties in Sicily, a region with a high level of organized crime, thus freeing police resources for investigative and related activities. There were a number of credible reports that some members of the security forces committed abuses.

Italy has an advanced, industrialized market economy, and the standard of living is high. Small and midsized companies employ some 70 to 80 percent of the work force. Major products include machinery, textiles, apparel, transportation equipment, and food and agricultural products. The Government owns a substantial number of enterprises in finance, communications, industry, transportation, and services, but privatization is moving forward at a measured pace.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens. The law and the judiciary generally provide effective means of dealing with instances of individual abuse. However, there were problems in some areas. There continued to be reports of police abuse of detainees, although abuse of inmates by prison guards declined. Prisons are overcrowded, and the pace of justice remains slow. Societal discrimination against women, abuse of children, and discrimination and sporadic violence against immigrants and other foreigners are problems. Parliament passed new comprehensive legislation to protect women against violence and sexual abuse. There were some reports of child labor in the underground economy.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

Two Turin police officers were brought to trial on manslaughter charges in 1994 for beating a suspect to death after his arrest in December 1993. In January 1995, a court acquitted both officers, finding that one officer's use of physical force had been within the limits of the law. The suspect's family appealed in April 1995, but a hearing had not been scheduled by year's end.

The trial of four suspects charged with the March 1993 killing of an Iranian opposition leader took place in September. The court acquitted three of the suspects for insufficient evidence and the fourth was considered beyond the jurisdiction of the court by reason of diplomatic immunity.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits torture and cruel or degrading punishment. However, there have been some reports of abuse by police. Amnesty International (AI), the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), the U.N. Committee Against Torture, and the Council of Europe's European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (ECPT) reported instances in which police abused detainees, commonly at the time of arrest or during the first 24 hours in custody, before detainees saw an attorney or a judicial authority. Examples of mistreatment include kicking, punching, beatings with batons, or deprivation of food. A high proportion of these cases involve non-European Union immigrants (mostly Africans), Roma, and persons held in connection with drug-related offenses. The U.N. Committee and the UNHRC expressed concern over a possible trend towards racism. Amnesty International (AI), the UNHRC and the U.N. Committee noted that, although authorities routinely investigate complaints of mistreatment in detention, some of the investigations lack thoroughness. The U.N. Committee and the UNHRC also questioned whether appropriate sanctions were imposed on those found guilty. Italy has ratified all of the principal international instruments prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, but the ECPT and the UNHRC recommended that the authorities take more effective steps to safeguard detainees and inmates from poor treatment. The ECPT's first visit to Italian prisons was in March 1992. Another visit took place in October 1995, but the report on that visit was not available by year's end.

Amnesty International reported several specific instances of mistreatment by law enforcement and prison officers. One involved the alleged beating and verbal abuse of the driver of a car by police officers acting as bodyguards for a judge in Sicily. Although the driver was released without charge, he had to be treated at a hospital for a perforated ear drum and bruises. He lodged a formal written complaint with the local judiciary in June 1995 and was given oral confirmation that October that judicial proceedings had been opened on his case. In another case, a Ghanian citizen resident in Denmark was reportedly beaten by police officers at the Rome airport because they suspected him of travelling with illegal documentation. Although he was permitted to continue his journey the next day, he allegedly suffered hearing loss in one ear and facial disfigurement. The Ghanaian filed a written account of his experience with the Italian Embassy in Denmark. In addition AI reported that an Italian citizen of Nigerian origin was beaten by two police officers when she failed to produce identity documents upon their request. In May the prosecutor's office requested that the two officers involved be tried on charges of abuse of authority, threat, and causing injury. The prosecutor also asked that the woman be charged for resisting and insulting public officials, refusing to identify herself, and causing injury. Preliminary hearings have been scheduled.

Prison standards meet international levels. However, despite the creation of new prison space and a drop of almost 5 percent in the total jail population (due mainly to a law passed in 1995 changing the terms of preventive detention), the prison population exceeds maximum capacity of the nation's prisons by some 20 percent. In some cases, the number of inmates is two or three times greater than capacity. Overcrowding creates problems of poor sanitation and strains medical services, so much so that it was noted as a negative factor by the ECPT in its report on prison conditions after a visit in 1992 (published in Italy in 1995). AIDS is a major problem, although the law allows judges to release prisoners whose detention would prevent access to appropriate treatment or endanger the health of other inmates. According to data of the Association of Prison Doctors, about 5 percent of the total prison population is HIV positive. There were 43 suicides as of early December, compared with 50 during 1995.

The number of allegations of abuse of prisoners by guards is decreasing. In December 1994, the Naples judiciary committed to trial 71 prison officials of the Secondigliano prison, including the chief warden, on charges of mistreating some 300 inmates in early 1993. A court hearing for 65 of the defendants, all of them prison guards, began in March.

The Government permits independent monitoring of prison conditions by parliamentarians, local human rights groups, the media, and other organizations.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

In response to public concern over excessive use of preventive or investigative detention, Parliament passed a new law in 1995 clarifying that preventive detention can be imposed only as a last resort, or if there is clear and convincing evidence of a serious offense, such as crimes involving the Mafia, or those related to drugs, arms, or subversion. In these cases, a maximum of 2 years of preliminary investigation is permitted. Except in extraordinary situations, preventive custody is not permitted for pregnant women, single parents of children under 3 years of age, persons over 70 years of age, or those who are seriously ill. Despite these added protections, the practice of preventive detention reemerged as a concern when a former Senator accused of mafia-related crimes, who had fled Italy for 4 months but was returning to face the charges, committed suicide in August.

Detainees are allowed prompt and regular access to lawyers of their choosing (although occasional lapses in this general rule have been alleged) and to family members. If a detainee is indigent, the State provides a lawyer. The preliminary hearing judge's interrogation of an accused person must be conducted within 5 days, or the defendant must be released. Interrogation by a magistrate of a person in custody must be recorded on video or audio tape, or the statements cannot be utilized in any proceedings. The prosecutor is required to include in his request for preventive measures all evidence favorable to the accused. In addition the defense may present any favorable evidence directly to the court.

Preventive custody can be imposed only for crimes punishable by a maximum sentence of not less than 4 years.

There is no provision for bail, but judges may grant provisional liberty to suspects awaiting trial. As a safeguard against unjustified detention, panels of judges ("liberty tribunals") review cases of persons awaiting trial and decide whether continued detention is warranted. Despite these measures, as of mid-1996, 40 percent of inmates were in prison because they were awaiting either trial or the outcome of an appeal, rather than because they had been finally sentenced. The Constitution and law provide for restitution in cases of unjust detention.

Punishment by exile abroad is not practiced, and the law prohibits domestic exile.

e. Denial of Fair and Public Trial

The judiciary is formally autonomous, but the Constitution gives the Justice Minister the right to propose disciplinary action against magistrates. Friction between the magistrates and the Justice Ministry can develop when this right is exercised.

There are three levels of courts. The lower level has three separate tracks: Praetor Courts for offenses punishable by monetary fines or imprisonment for not more than 4 years; a Court of Assizes for crimes punishable by prison terms of more than 24 years; and a Tribunal Court for offenses falling between the jurisdiction of the first two. The Assizes Court of Appeals hears appeals from all three tracks. Decisions at this level can be further appealed to the highest level, the Court of Cassation, which is headquartered in Rome.

The law provides for trials to be fair and public, and the authorities observe these provisions. The law grants defendants the presumption of innocence. Trials are public, and defendants have access to an attorney sufficiently in advance to prepare a defense. Defendants can confront witnesses. All government-held evidence is normally made available to defendants and their attorneys. Defendants can appeal verdicts to the highest appellate court.

Cumbersome procedures slow the pace of justice. The average waiting period for trials is about 18 months. The Code of Criminal Procedure that took effect in 1989 sought to streamline the process, but it has not produced substantial improvement. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of two Italian citizens who claimed that their rights had been violated by the length of the proceedings in their case. They were arrested on February 13, 1976, charged with murder, and after trials and appeals, the Court of Cassation gave a final ruling on February 28, 1992. The European Court ordered the Italian Government to pay $16,000 (24 million lire) to one of the accused and $10,000 (15 million lire) to the other, plus their court costs.

Since 1991 public prosecutors have conducted sweeping investigations into high level corruption. These inquiries continue and enjoy public support. However, there are critics who complain that some investigating magistrates are occasionally influenced by political or other interests in choosing targets of inquiry, or sometimes fail to show adequate respect for the rights of the suspects, by, for example, making excessive use of preventive detention (see Section 1.d.). In addition, since 1993 more than 200 magistrates have come under judicial investigation on charges of corruption, collusion, or mafia-related crimes. At least 15 were arrested and several others were committed to trial.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law safeguards the privacy of the home, and the authorities respect this provision. Searches and electronic monitoring may be carried out only under judicial warrant and in carefully defined circumstances. Violations are subject to legal sanction.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and the press, and the Government respects these rights in practice. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Government does not restrict the right of peaceful assembly, including protests against government policies, except in cases where national security or public safety is at risk. Permits are not required for meetings, but organizers of public demonstrations must notify the police in advance. Professional and employer associations organize and operate freely. While allowing general freedom of association, the Constitution and law prohibit clandestine associations, those that pursue political aims through force, that incite racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination, or that advocate fascism.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and the Government respects this right. The Government subsidizes the Roman Catholic Church, the Adventist Church, and the Assemblies of God by allowing taxpayers to elect to designate a fixed percentage of their tax payment to one or another of these. In November 1993 the Buddhist community applied for the same funding, but the Government has not yet responded.

Roman Catholic religious instruction is offered in public schools as an optional subject. Those students who do not want to attend the "hour of religion" may take an alternative course.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution and law provide for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. Citizens who leave are guaranteed the right to return. The Constitution forbids deprivation of citizenship for political reasons.

The Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. It provides first asylum for refugees fleeing hostilities or natural disasters, for example. In these cases the refugees are granted temporary residence permits that must be renewed periodically and that carry no guarantee of future permanent residence. In 1996 the number of such refugees present in Italy, coming largely from the Balkans, declined to 49,630. The Government also provides political asylum, often for permanent residence, and 120 permits were granted in 1996 for political asylees. There were no reports of forced expulsion of any persons having valid claim to refugee status.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

All citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote, by secret ballot, for the 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Those over 25 have the right to vote for 315 of the 325 members of the Senate, which also has 10 nonelected members, such as former Presidents of the Republic. Elections must be held every 5 years, or sooner if the President of the Republic so orders.

Parliament and a few representatives of regional bodies jointly elect the President of the Republic for a 7-year term. The Constitution states that the President need not be a member of Parliament, but must be over age 50. The President nominates the Prime Minister, who is the head of the executive and who in turn selects the cabinet members.

There are no restrictions in law on women's participation in government and politics. Fewer women than men, however, are office holders: in 1995 women held 3 of 23 cabinet positions. Women hold 25 of 325 Senate seats, and 63 of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A wide variety of human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are generally cooperative and responsive to their views.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex (except with regard to hazardous work – see below), religion, ethnic background, or political opinion, and provides some protection against discrimination based on disability, language, or social status. However, societal discrimination persists to some degree.


Legislation to protect women from physical abuse, including from members of their family was updated and strengthened in February. The law regards spousal rape the same as any other rape.

Media reports of domestic violence are common, and Telefono Rosa, a prominent nongovernmental organization, reports that its hot line for assistance in cases of violence against family members received 1,621 calls in 1995 (latest available figures). The same organization reports that rape cases filed with the courts were 1,863 for 1995, compared with 1,689 for 1994 (latest available figures).

Law enforcement and court officials are not reluctant to bring perpetrators of violence against women to justice, but victims sometimes do not press charges due to fear, shame, or ignorance of the law. The new legislation passed in February makes prosecution of perpetrators of violence against women easier and shelters women who have been objects of attack from publicity. The Government provides a hot line through which abused women can obtain legal, medical, and other assistance. In May the city of Milan opened a clinic served by 40 doctors to provide free medical assistance to abused women and minors. Women's associations also maintain several shelters for battered women.

The media report cases of trafficking in women, often involving forced prostitution. The women (as well as their exploiters) are usually illegal immigrants and are therefore reluctant to contact the police. Nevertheless, the police have been able to make arrests on several occasions.

There are a number of government offices that work to ensure women's rights. The Prodi Government created a new cabinet-level position, the Office of Minister for Equal Opportunity, and named a woman to this position. In addition there is an Equal Opportunity Commission within the Office of the Prime Minister. Another such commission is in the Labor Ministry and focuses on discrimination and women's rights in the workplace. The Labor Ministry has a counselor who deals with these problems at the national level, and similar officials serve with regional and provincial governments. Many of these counselors, however, have limited resources for their work.

Some laws intended to protect women from hazardous work keep them out of jobs such as night shifts or underground work in mines, quarries, or tunnels. Maternity leave, introduced to benefit women, does add to the cost of employing them, with the result that employers sometimes find it advantageous to hire men instead.

Women generally receive lower salaries than men for comparable work. They are underrepresented in many fields, such as management or the professions (women, for example, account for only 25 percent of magistrates and only 10 percent of police officers). Women are often laid off more frequently than men.

While the law does not specifically prohibit sexual harassment, labor agreements covering broad sectors of the economy, in both the private and public sectors, do contain clauses that address the problem.

Women enjoy legal equality with men in marriage, property, and inheritance rights.

There are many groups actively and effectively involved in promoting women's rights. Most are close to labor unions or political parties.


The Government demonstrated a strong commitment to children's rights and welfare. It signed the European Convention on the Exercise of the Rights of Minors on January 25. It launched an extensive study of the living conditions of minors to serve as a data base for policies to improve their situation. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare and the Ministry of Public Administration brought employers' associations, national cooperative societies, and labor unions together to subscribe to a pact to battle exploitation of child labor by those organizations in their operations both in Italy and overseas. Signatories of the pact also agreed to contribute an hour's wage (for labor) or its equivalent for their staffs (for organizations) to United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and International Labor Organization (ILO) programs aimed at improving the situation of children in less developed countries. Nevertheless, there were credible reports of instances of child labor in the underground economy.

Schooling is compulsory for children from age 7 to 14. The dropout rate for children in the compulsory schooling cycle is 0.75 percent for the nation as a whole, but 1.24 percent in the south. Boys and girls enjoy equal access and treatment with regard to education, health, and other government services.

Abuse of children is a societal problem. The National Statistical Office estimated that 600,000 children below the age of 15 suffered abuse of some kind within the last 2 years. A toll free number to help abused children under 14 years of age received an average of 5,000 calls daily nationwide. In the period from November 1994 to the end of May 1996, 3,580 of these calls required followup services. Social workers counsel abused children and are authorized to take action to protect them, including placing them in shelters.

People with Disabilities

The law forbids discrimination against disabled persons in employment, education, or in the provision of state services. Legislation requires enterprises with more than 35 employees to draw on the disabled to staff 15 percent of their work force, directs that public buildings be made accessible to persons with disabilities, and spells out a number of specific rights for the disabled. Compliance with these requirements, however, is still only partial.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Immigrants and other foreigners face societal discrimination. Some were even subjected to physical attack. The Romani people encounter difficulties finding places for their groups to stay. The city of Rome opened three camps for them so far and others are expected to be opened. The Romani population around Rome is between 5,000 and 6,500.

The Forum of Foreign Communities continues its work on behalf of immigrants and foreign residents. It has a hot line to report incidents of violence against foreigners. Other nongovernmental agencies, such as Caritas, provide a broad range of assistance to immigrants throughout the country.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The law provides for the right to establish trade unions, join unions, and carry out union activities in the workplace. Some 40 percent of the work force is organized. Trade unions are free of government controls and no longer have formal ties with political parties. The right to strike is embodied in the Constitution and is frequently exercised. A 1990 law restricts strikes affecting essential public services such as transport, sanitation, and health. Unions associate freely with international trade union organizations.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Constitution provides for the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, and these rights are respected in practice. By custom (though not by law), national collective bargaining agreements apply to all workers regardless of union affiliation.

The law prohibits discrimination by employers against union members and organizers. It requires employers who have more than 15 employees and who are found guilty of antiunion discrimination to reinstate the workers affected. In firms with less than 15 workers, an employer must state the grounds for firing a union employee in writing. If a judge deems these grounds spurious, he can order the employer to reinstate or compensate the worker.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition on Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and it does not occur.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The law forbids employment of children under 15 years of age (with some limited exceptions). There are also specific restrictions on employment in hazardous or unhealthful occupations of males under age 18, and females under age 21. Enforcement of minimum age laws is effective only outside the extensive "underground" economy.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Minimum wages are not set by law but rather by collective bargaining agreements. These specify minimum standards to which individual employment contracts must conform. When an employer and a union fail to reach agreement, courts may step in to determine fair wages on the basis of practice in comparable activities or agreements.

The law provides a maximum workweek of 48 hours, with no more than 6 days per week and 8 hours per day, except that the latter can be exceeded in some specified kinds of jobs. Most collective agreements provide for a 36 to 38 hour workweek. Overtime may not exceed 2 hours a day or an average of 12 hours per week.

The law sets basic health and safety standards and guidelines for compensation for on-the-job injuries. European Union directives on health and safety have also been incorporated into the law; some provisions have already taken effect and others will be phased in during 1997. Labor inspectors are from local health units or from the Ministry of Labor. They are few, given the scope of their responsibilities. Courts impose fines and sometimes prison terms for violation of health and safety laws. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to their continued employment.

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