Reportage. ‘How is she? She’s hanging in there. But it looks to me like she’s aged 10 years in this one year in prison.’

Ilaria Salis, chained like an animal, stands before a Hungarian judge

First, we hear the sound of chains dragging on the ground. Then the door opens and the first to enter is an officer from a special task force of the Hungarian police: in light-colored camouflage uniform, gun at his hip, his face covered by a balaclava. The defendants follow, with handcuffs on their wrists, manacles on their ankles and leather belts around their waists from which a chain is attached, much like a leash.

Mr. Giuseppe Salis and his wife Roberta Benevici haven’t been able to see their daughter Ilaria for months – now they see her like this, chained up “like an animal.”

The last time they could visit her in prison was in mid-November, when they spoke from behind a glass, through a handset. Ilaria looks at her parents, looks around for her friends from Milan sitting in the back of the courtroom, and smiles. This is her way of resisting the appalling conditions she is being subjected to in prison, with cramped spaces, rats, cockroaches, bedbugs, poor quality food, constraints and restrictions that have horrified half of Europe but, as it seems, not the Italian government.

Ilaria Salis, 39, a schoolteacher, is on trial in Budapest on charges of taking part in the assault of three neo-Nazis last February, around the time of the “Day of Honor,” an event which, from the mid-1990s onward, has been drawing certain nostalgic people from all over the continent to commemorate the exploits of the Nazi SS fighting against the Red Army. But there’s more: according to the prosecutors, Salis is part of an organization called Hammerbande, which has been the focus of a number of investigations in Germany and has been branded sometimes as extremist, sometimes as terrorist. This is why she has been offered an absurd plea deal: 11 years in prison. She has always maintained that she is innocent, as she does once again in the courtroom before Judge Jozsef Sòs.

The prosecutor reads the papers, listing the charges relentlessly, in a torrent of words without taking a breath, and doesn’t stop when Ilaria Salis’ interpreter politely requests it. However, the general atmosphere appears cordial – overly so. The arrivals from Italy, the interest of some humanitarian organizations and the cameras present must have prompted the hosts to make a display of being open and accommodating defenders of the rule of law and freedom of information.

The security checks are very lax on the ground floor of the courthouse, and we were surprised to find directions to the courtroom in both German and Italian posted on the walls. Security officials and personnel are putting on a show of sympathy, making jokes in Italian, and there is even an interpreter available to the public. However, this excess of courtesy does not detract from the harshness of a process that recalls the old Italian inquisitorial proceedings: there is only an all-powerful judge to decide on very weighty matters, with the power to take any measures to obtain new evidence.

Accordingly, those on the side of the prosecution are inclined to have a ruthless attitude, while the defense seems to be animated by a strange form of fatalism about what is occurring: for instance, in the middle of the hearing, the prosecutor gives a negative opinion on any possibility of out-of-jail custody for Ilaria Salis, without her lawyer having ever asked for that. In Italy, some protest from the defense would have been amply justified; here nobody breathes a word. Just before, another of the defendants, Tobias Edelhoff from Germany, surprised everyone by pleading guilty.

He had not been charged with any specific crime other than belonging to the Hammerbande, for which he has a record in Germany. The prosecution immediately requests a sentence of three years and six months; Sòs, after retiring for an hour, gives him three years, one of which he has already served. This will be followed by an appeal by both his defense (which perhaps had hoped for a light sentence and the young man’s immediate release from prison) and the prosecution, which appears extraordinarily dissatisfied with the six months taken off by the judge.

The third defendant, Anna Christina Mehwald, is not in custody; she is the only one who is neither chained nor surrounded by officers. She pleads not guilty, and her trial will continue along with Salis’s. The three had been arrested together a year ago, on February 11, while in a taxi.

In total, the hearing lasts for three and a half hours. Ilaria and Tobias are in chains the entire time, but she ends up having the cuffs on her wrists loosened because she is deemed “less dangerous” than him. The defendants’ exit is as grim as their entrance: with tiny footsteps due to their shackled feet, officers clearing a path in front of them, and the sound of dragging chains as a constant soundtrack. Ilaria only has time to smile at her parents for one last time and then disappears behind a doorway, surrounded by balaclava-clad officers. The hearing is adjourned until May 24, a far-off date for a trial in which several witnesses will have to be heard, including the neo-Nazis who were attacked, as well as surveillance footage presented in which investigators claim to have recognized Ilaria Salis, but which, according to her lawyers, proves that she wasn’t present during the attacks. This matter is set to be discussed again as late as the fall.

Outside the courtroom, Ilaria’s friends say goodbye. The parents prepare to continue their battle: on Monday they would finally see the Italian ambassador in Budapest, then return to Italy. They hope to bring Ilaria back to Italy one way or another, although the issue is more of a diplomatic than a judicial one. “How is she? She’s hanging in there. But it looks to me like she’s aged 10 years in this one year in prison,” concludes Roberto Salis. The fact that he can keep his calm is already a great proof of diplomatic skill.

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