In the barracks and the police stations, no end justifies all means. “Substantialist” rhetoric about police activity claims that anything is permitted in order to administer justice or to get to the truth more quickly.
Such rhetoric is both dangerous and goes outside the bounds of what is permissible in a democracy.
The limits to police power are what distinguishes an illiberal regime from a constitutional state based on the rule of law. In the latter, no one is allowed to abuse their power while keeping people in custody. A strong state is one that fights against crime while respecting its own rules. The images that have been seen around the world, of a person arrested, blindfolded and handcuffed, illustrate “substantialist,” anything-goes rhetoric.
It is totally devoid of logical sense and of any instrumental purpose, as well as institutionally wrong, to justify the conduct of the carabinieri in this case, as Interior Minister Matteo Salvini tried to do when he wrote: “To those who are complaining about the blindfolding of an arrested person, remember that the only victim for whom we should cry is a man, a son, a 35-year-old husband, a policeman, a servant of the Fatherland who died in service at the hands of people who, if they are guilty, deserve nothing but life in prison. With labor. Period.”
This short post by the Minister occasions at least three different observations.
First of all, he contrasts the victim with the arrested person, as if respecting the rights of the latter were not also essential to ensure justice for the victim.
Today, the investigation and trial against the two Americans has a less-certain standing than it would have had if it had been carried out in full respect of the law since the earliest stages. What would Minister Salvini write on Facebook if someone from his own party under investigation, rightly or wrongly, were to be blindfolded and handcuffed after his arrest?
Neither formal nor informal interrogation can be different, in manner and severity, as a function of the severity of the crime of which the person is accused—as the Minister seems to want. This is an absurdity being spread and proclaimed loudly by those who lack the ability to think in abstract and general terms, by those who do not realize that if there is a law, it must apply to everyone and it is a guarantee for everyone, whether innocent or guilty, whether prisoner or guard.
Any form of psychological or physical pressure has a coercive effect on the will of the suspect and does not facilitate the search for the actual truth, as it adds an element of fear which muddies up the work of the investigators.
Secondly, the Minister is calling for a punishment which is illegal: forced labor. All the other ministers should react against this, starting with the Minister of Justice and the Prime Minister. Those who swore their oaths of office on the Constitution must recall the contents of Article 13, which states that every type of physical and moral violence against individuals is forbidden, even if their personal liberty is being restricted.
Any act of physical and moral violence against a person subject to restriction of personal liberty shall be punished. – Italian Constitution, Art. 13
We do not know whether those who blindfolded the young American and those who allowed this to happen will be indicted, and what the indictment will look like, but we know that due to this act, the dignity of the person under investigation was trampled underfoot, and the investigative action in pursuit of the truth has been put in jeopardy.
Those who are trying to spin these events on social media are clearly unconcerned about either of these two issues.
Finally, two further observations.
The first is that, fortunately, our legal system does not allow extradition to countries which allow the death penalty.
The second is that if we speculate about what would have happened if the person arrested had been from North Africa instead of from the US, that can only lead us to highly disturbing scenarios.
Patrizio Gonnella is the president of the Italian civil rights NGO Antigone.