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Commentary. Italy’s highest court upheld the universal right to human dignity by deciding in favor of Toto Riina, perhaps the most brutal, murderous gangster in the history of organized crime.

Everyone has a right to ‘die with dignity,’ court affirms

Toto Riina, the brutal former head of the Sicilian Mafia, known alternately as “the boss of bosses” and “Beast,” has been in prison since 1993, convicted of more than 100 murders. But on Monday night, Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation rejected a decision by the Probate Court in Bologna to keep Riina locked up as his health deteriorates.

Riina, 86, last year requested a deferred sentence — or alternately house arrest — as he suffers from multiple serious diseases. The parole board rejected the request, reasoning that the constant supervision of prison doctors, coupled with the possibility of admission to an outside hospital if necessary, was sufficient to make Riina’s detention compatible with his health needs.

Late Monday, however, the Supreme Court said that was only part of the story. Riina, like any human being, has a body that must be safeguarded in its fundamental right to health and care. While the lower court’s decision was perhaps adequate to ensure the appropriate care for Riina’s physical body, the Supreme Court argued that he also has “dignity.” And, like anyone else, he must be guaranteed the right to die in a dignified and respectful way.

The Supreme Court said the undeniably deep criminal connections of the Cosa Nostra boss had no relevance to the situation. Given Riina’s health condition and advanced age, it must be proven that he still has influence and ability to command the organization he belonged to. But, even if the lower court were able to provide such proof, the universal principle that the Supreme Court affirmed remains, even in relation to one of the most ruthless criminals figures of post-War Italy and our collective imagination: Everyone has a right to have the own dignity respected, in death as in life. The Supreme Court’s document adds that the prison sentence granted to Riina in his present condition, is likely to go beyond the “legitimate enforcement of a sentence.”

Every Italian citizen must now feel stronger in the knowledge that they belong to a state that is not afraid to defend the dignity of even the most criminal of criminals. This must apply to Riina, and must also apply to all those unknown prisoners who are sometimes left to die in jail in a state of therapeutic abandonment.

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