The Lega senator Roberto Calderoli has been convicted of defamation aggravated by racial hatred and sentenced to one year and six months in prison (suspended pending appeals) for having likened then-minister Cécile Kyenge to an orangutan at a rally in 2013. The Court of Bergamo recognized the aggravating circumstance of the racism of Calderoli’s remark, who at the time held the position of vice-president of the Senate, a position he still holds today.
Last July, Calderoli, one of the top leaders of the Lega, tried to defend himself in court saying: “I don’t remember word for word what I said, but my intent was a political criticism against the Letta government, also aimed at some amusement for those present, in light-hearted tones. I never used the word ‘orangutan,’ but ‘orangutans,’ referring to the whole government. I meant to say that they were clumsy just like bulls in a china shop. If I had used this other metaphor instead, we would not be in this courtroom.”
However, this attempted excuse is clearly belied by the audio recording of the remark (available online), which was made at a Lega rally in Treviglio in July 2013. As he riles up the 1,500 Lega supporters in the audience, Calderoli can be heard saying: “Every time I open the website of the government, when I see Ms. Kyenge come up, I’m dead. Me, I’m an animal lover, for God’s sake. I’ve had tigers, bears, monkeys and everything else. But when I see the appearance of an orangutan come up, I am still shocked.”
On Monday, the former minister Ms. Kyenge, now a Democratic Party deputy, commented on social media: “We have won again, in the courts, in the places that truly count. Racism has serious consequences. It is an encouraging sentence. Thus, I am expressing my satisfaction: not only for personal reasons, but also because the decision of the Bergamo court confirms that we can, and we should, fight through the criminal courts, as well as in civil courts, in civil settings and in the political arena.”
It was not easy to get to the point of holding Calderoli accountable. In February 2015, the Senate’s special committee tasked with authorizing criminal proceedings against a sitting senator voted in favor of Calderoli and against indictment, because his views had been supposedly expressed “by a member of Parliament during the exercise of his functions.” The Lega senator claimed in his defense that it had merely been “a criticism of the immigration policy of the Letta government.” This flimsy explanation was accepted even by four senators from the Democratic Party, colleagues of Kyenge herself, who said at the time: “It is as if the insult has been thrown in the face of the whole country, for the second time.” The Democrat Claudio Moscardelli, for example, said during the committee meeting that “the charges regarding incitement to racial hatred are unfounded, given the political context in which the words in question were spoken, and also taking into account the membership of the Lega, a party in which several people of color are also active.” The committee decision provoked a firestorm of controversy, particularly within the Democratic Party, including its president, Giorgio Napolitano, who had harsh words for his own party. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also called the Lega senator’s words “shocking and unacceptable.”
Later on, Calderoli put forward a million amendments to the Renzi government’s constitutional reform, with an evident obstructionist aim. Thus, it was no coincidence that in mid-September, when it came time for the floor vote on allowing Calderoli’s indictment, the PD, in the person of caucus leader Luigi Zanda, seemed to side with Calderoli in asking for a postponement of the decision, because “the sensitivity of the issue requires that each senator should be properly informed, so they might assess and reflect on” the motivations for the indictment. As seven months had already passed since the vote in the Senate commission to clear Calderoli, Zanda’s statement sounded like the flimsy pretext it was, even at the time. His request, in any case, was rejected.
To save face, the PD-led majority decided to try to split the difference: they voted to give the green light for a trial for defamation, but not for the separate crime of incitement to racial hatred. With the legal threat against him diminished, Calderoli withdrew his obstructionist amendments. Later on, the Court of Bergamo had to call on the Constitutional Court to solve the jurisdictional dispute in order to proceed with the indictment put forward by the prosecutors. “It is a major recognition of the work of the prosecutors who started the investigations”—Kyenge said yesterday—“demonstrating that the public space cannot become a place where incitement to racial hatred is allowed. The judges also deserve praise, who have demonstrated both fairness and firmness.” Praise is due to the judiciary branch—the Democratic Party, however, deserves none. After they embarrassed themselves by betraying the cause of anti-racism, horse-trading it in the Senate for Matteo Renzi’s (futile) project of constitutional reforms, there was not a peep all day yesterday from anyone in the Democratic Party about the verdict.