There was a funeral with full military honors for Mario Cerciello Rega. The ceremony was held Monday morning in his hometown, Somma Vesuvius, in the same church where he was married less than two months ago. On his coffin, the family put his wedding photos and a Napoli soccer club jersey with the number 24 (belonging to Lorenzo Insigne). The entire town came out to bid him a final farewell.
Outside the church were flower wreaths sent by the President of the Republic. The officials who attended the ceremony were Vice-Prime Ministers Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini (who ignored each other during the service), Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta, and the Environment Minister, Sergio Costa. Next to them, there were also the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Robert Fico, the Vice President of the Senate, Ignazio La Russa, and the president of the Campania region, Vincenzo De Luca. The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, also paid tribute to the corporal killed on duty in the Prati district in an attempted extortion scheme that ended in tragedy. In the capital, 200 shops lowered their shutters as a sign of mourning.
The commander of the Carabinieri, Giovanni Nistri, during his speech in the church, said: “It’s right to have arguments, but today let’s leave them at the door: let us not plunge in the knife a 12th time.” It was a reference to the murder, in which the victim was stabbed 11 times, and for which Finnegan Elder Lee and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, two young men from California, have been arrested.
The “12th blow” would be the controversy following the publication Friday of photos of Natale-Hjorth in custody at a carabinieri station in Selci, Rome. In the photos, he sat on a chair with his hands handcuffed behind his back, his head bowed and wearing a blindfold. The military policeman who decided to blindfold him—an illegal practice in Italy—tried to explain his actions by saying he wanted to prevent the suspect from seeing the contents of computer monitors and confidential documents. The officer was moved to a non-operational role and will have to answer before the judiciary, together with his colleagues who were present but did not intervene—and likely also the person who took the photo and leaked it in online chatrooms. The top brass of the Carabinieri immediately distanced themselves from what had happened (saying it was “unacceptable”) and launched an internal investigation.
The Attorney General of Rome, Giovanni Salvi, put out a note to clarify that during the actual interrogation, “the suspects were personally unrestrained, did not have blindfolds or handcuffs, were assisted by attorneys and advised of their rights,” thus excluding any negative consequences for the trial. However, there is no doubt that the story will play a significant role in the strategy of the defense team. On the other hand, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini preferred to summarily dismiss any concerns: “To those who are complaining about a person arrested being blindfolded, remember that the only victim you should cry about is … a servant of the Fatherland who died in service at the hands of people who, if guilty, deserve nothing but life in prison. With labor.”
On Monday, Di Maio also intervened in the debate: “I saw that there is a lot of controversy. That photo is not a pretty sight. The leadership did well to transfer the carabinieri who carried out this act. But talking more about the blindfolded guy than about the policeman who was murdered is missing the point.”
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte took to social media Sunday to offer a rather different take than those of his two vice-premiers: “There is no doubt that our Mario is the victim here. I would like everyone to consider, however, that the institution of the Carabinieri has done well to identify the person responsible. Treating a person deprived of liberty in such a way does not meet our principles and legal values, and may qualify as one or several criminal acts. The sharing of photos on social media is also a reprehensible act.” He concluded: “Italy is a nation of laws. We have well-established values and principles: let us avoid being carried away by the wave of emotional reactions.”
In the US, the photo was met with angry reactions in the media. CNN described it as “shocking image,” and The Washington Post called it “intolerable.”
The US press questioned the legality of the whole operation, talked about a possible extradition request and compared the case to that of Stefano Cucchi. “I would not want to see the United States put forward the same defense that Amanda Knox did in her trial. It would be out of place for the United States to take a stand in favor of the two suspects,” said the former Prefect of Rome, Achille Serra. On Monday, Knox herself tweeted that the case “should be tried in the court of law, not in the court of public opinion.”
AREA, the association of progressive magistrates, put out a strong statement: “It is unacceptable that conduct infringing on principles and rights can be perpetrated in a barracks of the military police.” And again: “A reprehensible image was distributed on social media, with the effect of fueling brutal urges for revenge, taking us back to the idea of a consensus founded on hatred.”
Along the same lines, the Democratic Judiciary added: “He who has the legal monopoly on the use of force cannot abuse it. It is worrying to note that, through the words of the Interior Minister, the respect for these guarantees is being trivialized, and one ends up crediting dangerous distortions. It is also worrying that politics can extract pretexts for propaganda in order to stoke up a grotesque plebiscite on the principle of ‘whose side are you on?’”