On Monday, the decay of the rule of law in Hungary was there for all to see: a striking reality encapsulated in the images of Ilaria Salis chained hand and foot between two policemen in balaclavas wearing camo gear.
It was the most explicit self-portrait of criminal justice in the days of Viktor Orbán: regime-sponsored police-state iconography. The Hungarian authorities, not at all concerned about the presence of outside observers and cameras, wanted to flaunt this image before the whole world. The picture represents their version of the goal of criminal justice: terror, suspicion, humiliation, shame.
This is happening in a country where political power has sought to undermine the independence of the judiciary in recent years, and where the attorney general can now interfere in the decision-making autonomy of territorial prosecutors. The European Union report on the rule of law in Hungary in 2022 highlighted the changes that had been made to the architecture of the investigative judiciary, with ties of subordination between magistrates that reeked of control, influence and interference.
In the case of Ilaria Salis, one can clearly see a treatment so disproportionate to the actual facts that it suggests the absence of balanced and independent judgment.
Prosecutors have called for 11 years in prison for a case of very minor bodily injury – little more than a few scratches. Not even the Italian Fascist-era Rocco Code provided such high penalties for anything other than injuries resulting in incurable ailments or the victim’s loss of a sense or a limb.
Ilaria Salis has been in pre-trial detention in one of Budapest’s prisons for almost a year. So far, she has had to endure extremely harsh prison conditions, both because of the material conditions present there and the special regime imposed on her, of partial solitary confinement, which in Italy is reserved only for the most high-profile criminals. In a recent document submitted by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee to the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, on the occasion of its March 2023 inspection visit to Hungarian prisons, the report of which has yet to be published, the NGO denounces the fact that civil society organizations are no longer allowed access to detention facilities.
The Hungarian prison authority has unilaterally terminated the cooperation agreements with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. As a result, the country’s prisons have reverted to the secrecy of the previous regime. Furthermore, all institutional control mechanisms over prisons and police stations have been weakened. In such a situation, it is the moral and legal obligation of Italian authorities to do everything possible to remove Ilaria Salis from those conditions.
All official reassurances must be provided in order to bring Ilaria back to Italy under a non-custodial pre-trial regime.
We were disappointed to hear Justice Minister Nordio claim, when asked about the Salis case during question time in the Senate, that Italy supposedly doesn’t have a good reputation in the field of judicial cooperation because, after having obtained the extradition of Silvia Baraldini in 1999, she was warmly welcomed at the airport and only served a partial sentence. Well, I do in fact remember the details from that period and that case. She had likewise received a disproportionate, absurd sentence: 43 years for a crime without bloodshed, imposed on a person who was in poor health condition.
Fortunately, in Italy, judges who cared about the law and human rights reduced the unjust punishment against Silvia Baraldini. The Justice Minister should be proud about that case and the actions of the political and judicial authorities at the time – after all, he calls himself pro-defendant’s rights. Not to mention that just recently, the minister denied the extradition of Franco Reverberi to Argentina, a priest accused of torture and murder during the fascist Videla regime. Minister Nordio said he did so because he was concerned about the health of the alleged torturer.
Now we’re asking him to also show concern about the mental and physical health of Ilaria Salis, threatened by an inhumane and disproportionate imprisonment.