No story is told with ifs or buts. Especially not a complex story, with many variables and even more interpretations. In the recent sentencing of a small Calabrian town mayor, Domenico Lucano, to over 13 years in prison for a range of offences, there are many ifs and buts. This jail term is not only unusually long, but it is also particularly problematic as the charges range from administrative irregularities in the management of migration funds, participation in an organised crime group, embezzlement of public funds, corruption, fraud, and aiding and abetting illegal migration.
Domenico, “Mimmo”, Lucano was arrested in 2018. The prosecutors asked for a minimum term of 7 years in prison – and the court which passed judgement on the 1st of October went way beyond the prosecutors’ requests: another odd aspect to this trial. The legal arguments behind this will only be known 90 days after sentencing, as per Italian law.
Before the start of the trial, dubbed Xenia, Lucano was mayor of a village, Riace, that became world famous for its integration of migrants into the community. Started in the 2000s, by 2016, the Riace-model had become a symbol of solidarity worldwide. International observers were fascinated by what this mayor had done for the village’s 1,700 inhabitants. And the mayor featured as one of the top 50 most influential people of 2016 Fortune’s list.
For many, the trial and the sentence against Mimmo Lucano was nothing more than a political manoeuvre from the right-wing parties and their anti-migrant sentiments.
Why didn’t the judges consider Riace's migrant integration as a virtuous model of good practice? Have Lucano and his friends and colleagues really committed economic and fiscal crimes with administrative irregularities? What if the judges had avoided proceeding with a trial through different interpretations of the law? And what if Lucano, friends and colleagues, had basically only been concerned with the best interests of Riace?
But isn’t the indignant reaction by many to Lucano's long sentence, which seemed so disproportionate, already a sign that something is wrong with this application of the law? And what if the judges, who have doubled the sentence asked for by the prosecution, had only tried to indicate independence from the media coverage of the trial and the popularity of its number one defendant? Was the penalty proportionate to the crime committed? And if Lucano had not been Lucano - the Lucano, subject of many international media articles, the Lucano in documentaries, the Lucano studied in academic articles heralding the successes of the Riace model - would there have been a trial at all? And what would have been the sentence and the reaction to the sentence?
With ifs and buts no story can be told, if not a critical one, in retrospect. And the legal basis for the ruling that caused so much sensation last October 1st is still not public nor published by the Court. Once the legal arguments come out, they will perhaps explain why the Court found that Mimmo Lucano was not only the head of a criminal association, but above all that he had a clear intent to defraud the state, by making a mockery of state bureaucracy, manipulating the use of public funds, both national and European, and de facto by abusing his role as mayor. Perhaps the verdict will define Riace as that place that was seen from the outside as a model of hospitality and solidarity, rather than what people inside saw as a pretence, organised to grab funds and gain 'political advantages'.
But be careful. The real story is the village, Riace. Many, it would seem, including the prosecutors, find that hard to remember judging by what we read in the indictment of May 2021. In fact, and rightly so, many are today focused on the harsh penalty, on the way the law has been used and on the so-called political trial against solidarity.
Riace, like so many towns in the Calabrian Reggio-Ionian hinterland, risks being clouded, forgotten and condemned to oblivion once more. Riace, which is at the mercy of the interests of the 'ndrangheta, of predatory politics, of disgruntled and inattentive regional and provincial administrations. Riace, which people will abandon, because it has no future. Riace, that does not have a chance, and when it did, it was probably only because someone (meaning Lucano and his team) manoeuvred the financing system to divert funds destined for the reception of migrants towards the development of the village, to promote ‘jobs in general', to quote Lucano, and to enhance the local community’s daily life. It was a model that resisted control, discipline and victimisation of migrants and of citizens, which was therefore de-istitutionalising. No, Riace - like almost all of Calabria with some villages clinging to the mountains by a miracle, and others land-sliding towards the beaches without nets – doesn’t have a chance for further growth - or perhaps even salvation. Riace's reception model responded to a desire to integrate migrants into the village, not only to help them, but to help the village, to give Riace a chance. If there were no other funds and loans, why not use the funds intended for migrant reception in a 'creative' way, to help Riace too? Indeed, helping migrants and helping citizens was basically the same thing.
Once the migrant reception model was destroyed, and Lucano, its proudest advocate, was condemned for it, Riace is now left with only the ruins of the vision of potential solidarity and development. Now the community has been emptied, the municipal coffers gutted, and Riace languishes once more. Can we therefore justify, in the name of saving dying places, a series of 'creative' behaviours, when they become illegal behaviours? It is possible, legally, to justify the contempt for bureaucracy and the manipulation in the allocation of state funding, when the alternative is a hollow land like Calabria and a confused, illusory and perhaps naive desire, to make things better?
In 1977, the political and legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin wrote Taking Rights Seriously - a highly contested text. Dworkin adhered to the school of thought that supported the need to use morality as a correction of the law in complex judicial cases. Dworkin above all suggests civil disobedience can be justified if the disobedient acts for a better – a morally superior - reason than those who violate the law for greed or to subvert the government. In this type of disobedience, the philosopher notes the existence of an individual, inalienable right to consider the laws of the state at times simply distant from the concreteness of social complexity. The laws and orders of the state sometimes end up undermining the individual right to substantive equality. And this individual right must be taken seriously by politics, especially when the state has many faces, not all of which are easily understood by the citizens.
Certainly, the jail term faced by Lucano will be discussed for years, at least until the appeal and supreme court trials where the case most certainly will end. But politics, rather than legal process, should now concern itself with the inequality in the exercise of individual rights that reigns supreme in Calabria, and the drowsiness to which Riace - like many other villages - has been (re)condemned following this trial that addressed Riace but did not actually “see” the village. And, in the spirit of Dworkin, it should be politics that takes Riace seriously, and not the right of ethics ‘somnambulists', because dignity should be indivisible.
This article is a longer version in English, of the Italian article published in Lavialiebera.
Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Essex
Dr Anna Sergi holds a PhD in Sociology (2014), with specialisation in Criminology, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. Her research specialism is in organised crime studies and comparative criminal justice. She has published extensively in renowned peer-review journals in criminology on topics related to Italian mafias both in Italy and abroad as well as on policing strategies against organised crime across states.