Genoa frees Austrian actors arrested as they journeyed home from riots

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The Independent Online

Members of an Austrian theatre company, and a young American arrested with them afterthe Group of Eight summit riots in Genoa, were ordered to be freed last night by an Italian court.

Members of an Austrian theatre company, and a young American arrested with them afterthe Group of Eight summit riots in Genoa, were ordered to be freed last night by an Italian court.

The court in Genoa ordered the release of 20 people ­ 15 Austrians, three Americans, a Slovak and a Swede. The remaining five detained foreigners, three Austrians, a Slovak and an Australian, could be freed by the end of the week, a defence lawyer said.

The theatre company Publix Theatre Caravan had been travelling around Austria and East Europe protesting against racism and immigration controls before going to Genoa, where clashes at last month's summit left 230 people injured and one Italian protester dead.

The troupe was arrested by police on 22 July in Recco, a town 10 miles from Genoa, on its way back to Vienna. Alleged "weapons" found by police were props, the group said. They included black T-shirts, a bra, Swiss pocket knives, juggling batons, fire-eating equipment, orange helmets and a 50-year-old broken gas mask.

Their case was taken up by a number of prominent Italian artists, including the Nobel Prize-winning writer Dario Fo, the author of Accidental Death of an Anarchist. In Austria it caused a furore, with critics of the government accusing Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the Foreign Minister, of failing to act to secure their release because of sympathies with Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing government.

The case of Susan Thomas, a 22-year old American Quaker, became high-profile when her parents campaigned from their home in New Jersey. Ms Thomas, a student, was in Europe researching a thesis on non-violent protest movements. She claims she joined the Viennese theatre group because "she felt ill and ... asked them for a ride to get out of Genoa", her lawyer said.

The theatre members were accused of destroying public property and of criminal conspiracy, which carries a maximum sentence in Italy of 15 years, with the police claiming to have gathered evidence from mobile phones and documents contained in their vehicles.

Lawyers saidthe charges against the theatre group and those travelling with them had not been dropped. Police suspect the actors conspired with members of the Black Block anarchists, who are blamed for starting the violence.

Security officials have been assigned to other duties amid accusations of excessive force against the protesters, particularly in an overnight police raid on a demonstrators' dormitory on 22 July, in which 90 people were arrested.

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