An agonising death in custody that shames Italy

Rome's chief prosecutor, Giuseppe Pignatone, met the dead man’s family

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The Independent Online

The agonising death of Stefano Cucchi in police custody five years ago is one of a litany of violent crimes suspected to have been perpetrated by the   Italian law authorities.

But outrage over a court’s decision to clear 11 people, including three prison officers, of involvement in the killing has led campaigners to hope this is the development that might change things.

Rome’s chief prosecutor, Giuseppe Pignatone, met the dead man’s family on Monday in the hope of taking the fight for justice to Italy’s supreme court. Mr Pignatone released a statement saying that he was even prepared to reopen the investigation into Cucchi’s death. “It is not acceptable… that a person dies, and not from natural causes, while in the care and responsibility of the state,” he said.

The junior Justice Minister, Cosimo Maria Ferri, declared it “correct and just to reopen investigations”. There had been gasps in court on Friday when appeal judges cleared the accused for lack of evidence implicating them in the death of the 31-year-old architect, who was held for drug offences in October 2009.

Soon after his detention the slightly built man was transferred to a prison hospital wing. He died there a week later on 22 October. A post mortem examination showed the victim was severely dehydrated and also had two broken vertebrae and ruptured internal organs. The medical service at Regina Coeli Prison said Cucchi had accidentally fallen down some stairs. His parents, Rita and Giovanni Cucchi, were denied permission to see him during his entire time in hospital – until he died.

A photograph of the dead man’s face, coloured purple with bruises, was held aloft in the court on Friday by the prosecution, and later by Cucchi’s, sister, Illaria. Politicians have joined Amnesty International and Cucchi’s family in expressing outrage, that once again, someone has died in custody and no one has been judged to blame.

Gianni Alemanno, the conservative former mayor of Rome, said: “We need to know what happened otherwise the apparatus of the state will have no credibility.” At the weekend fans in football stadiums held up banners saying “The law is not equal for Cucchi”.

Antonio Marchesi, the director of Amnesty International’s Italian division, told The Independent that he saw positive signs in the reaction to the Cucchi verdict, together with moves in parliament to introduce the specific offence of torture. “These things suggest that violence in custody is becoming a big issue.”

Prosecutors say Cucchi was brutally assaulted by prison police officers. The victim’s health was thought to have deteriorated when prison hospital staff failed to treat his metabolic illness. Some of their colleagues doctored Cucchi’s medical records to conceal the violence and medical incompetence.

The appeal court judges upheld a lower court’s decision last year to acquit three prison police officers and three nurses of manslaughter charges. In addition, it struck down original convictions of four doctors and a hospital staff member accused of manslaughter.

In January 2013, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg fined Italy €100,000 for its inhuman living conditions for prisoners. And in 2012 the then Justice Minister, Paola Severino, acknowledged the shocking levels of violence, abuse and overcrowding in Italian prisons and pushed for reforms that have yet to be adopted.

Yesterday, the speaker of Senate, Pietro Grasso, appealed for new witnesses to come forward to help uncover the truth about Cucchi’s death.