Speaking for Ourselves

Equality before the law?

Equality before the law?

Amanda Cooney

 Migrant Voice - Equality before the law?

Everyone is equal before the law - aren’t they?

Two African migrants are in the dock after an incident on a bus.  They were picked up by the police on the basis of a description by the driver. But were they recognised by their faces – or by their ubiquitous T-shirts? Is it another example of that well-known crime: sitting in a park while black? Amanda Cooney unpicks the misconceptions, short cuts, misunderstandings and prejudices that can inexorably, agonisingly, turn flimsy shards of evidence into a life-wrecking prison sentence.  The drama is played out in an Italian courtroom but it could be France, Britain or any country where politicians are using migrants as universal scapegoats in an attempt to play on public frustrations and insecurities as a path to power.

Everyone is equal before the law - aren’t they?
A crucifix hangs on the wall. The courtroom is full of people coming and going, a blur of gowns, casual clothes, smart suits, plunging necklines. Clothes will be of key importance in this hearing. Those present – the handful of people in the public gallery, the local reporter, the witnesses in the dock, the judge and the accused – will hear plenty of polite-but-not-exactly-pressing questions about yellow T-shirts, blue shirts, Juventus tops, trainers, Colmar backpacks and other outfits. At times I find it difficult to follow. My eyes scan the room and rest on the inscription behind the judge’s chair: “La legge è uguale per tutti” (‘The law is equal for all’).  The crucifix makes me think of those old American films set in mid-west law courts where everyone swears on the bible. In God we trust. La giustizia bendata. And I fervently hope that Justice will be blind for a Muslim Gambian in this hot, provincial town rocked by recent events. 

Two bus drivers were attacked at 8.30pm on 5 June 2018 by a group of extracomunitari (code for black African immigrants and people of colour) / uomini di colore [black men] who apparently refused to show one of the drivers their tickets. Because, of course, everybody knows that in this Italy it is the extracomunitari who never buy bus tickets and think it is their God-given right to use public transport free of charge. Often this is true. Many don’t pay. And many Italians are exasperated. The law is the law. Especially when it comes to foreigners – the law is doubly the law then. This aggression by a group of black immigrants is seized on by the local and then the national press and the newly-installed Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini. 

Salvini, who in the past has said that he would turn the guns on migrant boats in the Mediterranean and would dump all migrants on the beach with a handful of nuts. He visits Como, and is snapped smiling warmly in solidarietà with, and hugging, the two injured bus conductors. He promises he will personally accompany one of the accused Gambians (who has a pending drug-pushing court case in Genoa) back on a plane to The Gambia.
The Gambian Muslim
Yusupha introduced me to the African version of Bob Marley. I, in turn (one good turn deserves another), thought I’d introduce him to Ed Sheeran, ‘cos I’m presumptuous like that. But, of course, he already knew Sheeran’s songs and would sing along as we mopped the floor after the migrants had eaten in the Caritas soup kitchen. He said he couldn’t live without music. Music was the one thing that kept him going, and like me, he was constantly plugged into his music. It helped him fall asleep. He came alive when he spoke about his child being cared for by his mother in The Gambia after the death of his young wife. Yusupha had earned the nickname ‘UK’ back home. I reckon he must have been hoping to get to the UK all his life with a nickname like that. During our voluntary work he would often speak with passion about the previous night’s football game and the matches he played with his fellow African migrants here in Como. Giorgia, a volunteer who knows him well describes him as un buonaccione (a gentle giant, who wouldn’t raise his hand to anybody). He’s a big, ebony-skinned, muscly guy. Just the kind who inspires fear among many in this sleepy town which has been predominantly white for just about forever, and looks back nostalgically to its rich, white past as a silk-producing powerhouse, and  times has a hostile stare for anything or anyone perceived as being different -  non ‘uno di noi’ (not ‘one of us’). Today at the trial, Yusupha’s wearing a yellow T-shirt.
The trial - 9am on 21 June 2018 
The witnesses for the prosecution:  the two bus drivers, the two arresting police officers and one bar owner who has CCTV footage of some black men on the bus where the aggression took place. The first bus driver, Pietro Lombardo, is questioned by the prosecution. He talks of a big group of extracomunitari who get on the bus, refuse to show him their ticket when he asks politely and go to the back of the bus. He refuses to drive until they show him their tickets – insults, swearwords, threatening physical behaviour. He calls the police. At this point they attack him physically – kicking and punching him to the ground. His colleague on another bus witnesses the scene and comes to the rescue, and is physically attacked in turn. As the police arrive, the Africans run off in the direction of the law court. By the court, the police immediately arrest two, who are identified by the bus drivers. Then, armed with a description of two other Africans, police squads go looking in i giardini al lago (the park by the lake) for the other assailants. The park is the African migrants’ abode – some push drugs, some gather in groups there because there is safety in numbers, and we all like what we know, and Como can be a hostile place for a black African man walking down the street. It is their meeting place. Their very presence scares a sizeable number of Comaschi who see in any black African a potential rapist, thief, drug pusher and your all-round average criminal. And many locals are finding it hard to deal with this influx of black migrants, who invariably are labelled clandestini by the more ardent and vocal Salvini & co supporters. The local right-wing government has promised to ‘clean’ the giardini al lago, and they are not referring to rubbish or litter. People – people have to disappear.  Police and carabinieri vans and cars patrol the giardini on a daily basis. Their presence is supposed to provide reassurance for il popolo. It fills me with unease. Local newspapers run articles with clickbait headlines such as ‘A way to get them out of Italy’ and ‘The situation ai giardini is improving - most of the migrants have disappeared.’ Whenever I go on my daily run or bike ride by the lake and see a black migrant I feel like taking a photo, posting it on social media and saying ‘Hey ... you missed a bit’ in some kind of cultural wink at a Ken Loach film where a mother taunts her street-cleaner daughter when she fails to pick up a piece of rubbish on the street. But that is such an obscure cultural reference that it would go over most people’s heads. The point is, people (clandestini, political asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants and the rest of the human flotsam currently on the list of ‘undesirables’ in Italy) don’t just disappear – unless, of course, you want them to, and you make them disappear. But we’ve already been there in history, haven’t we? We’re not going back there again ...  are we?

More witnesses for the prosecution: The second policeman to take the witness stand states that he and his colleague were provided with a (less-than-detailed ... ) description of two African men: one with a yellow T-shirt and the other with a grey baseball cap. They walk towards a group of black men sitting on a bench by the replica locomotive train ai giardini. The group shows no signs of being agitated or flustered - Sono tranquilli. When the undercover police officer and his uniformed colleague (walking some distance away, apparently) approach the group, none of them tries to escape. The officers arrest Yusupha because he fits the description – as in, a black man wearing a yellow T-shirt – and his Gambian friend, Camara, who again fits the description – as in, black man wearing a grey hat. Well, sure they fit the bill, don’t they? Only problem is, the grey-hatted Gambian friend currently sitting in the dock alongside Yusupha had a bicycle with him. The bus driver recognises all four of the defendants as his aggressors. He turns round and with conviction clearly states that he recognises all four. When Yusupha’s defence lawyer asks if he recognises her client in particular, he says yes and that he was definitely the black man in the yellow T-shirt in the CCTV images. The lawyer then tries to ask the politically uncomfortable (let’s forget ‘incorrect’) question which is at the heart of this trial – ‘Lei riesce a riconoscere le......... fattenza.......?’ (‘Are you able to recognise the features......?’). Her voice trails off. She says the word ‘features’ delicately, almost inaudibly. In a whisper. The judge interrupts with a loud and decisive: ‘Non ammetto la domanda!’ (‘The question is not allowed’). Post-trial, the lawyer admits to me that even she would find it difficult to distinguish one black man from another. And I admit to myself that, at times, I do too. 
To cut a long and at times tedious legal story short, the witnesses for the prosecution all lend weight to the idea that the four accused were present at the aggression, took an active part, ran off, were clearly recognised and subsequently identified by the two victims. The air in the court suddenly becomes heavy and irrespirabile – (as though you can’t breathe).

The witnesses for the defence: 
Witness No.1: a priest – Alessandro Zanti, in charge of a casa famiglia which hosts Salifa Camara, the other Gambian in the dock. During examination by the defence, it comes out that Camara always travelled by bicycle, and the African guests at la casa were given tickets by the casa if they ever needed to take the bus. Camara did not come home in time on 5 June for the weekly meeting in the casa famiglia. The prosecuting lawyer seizes upon this as if it were a vitally important piece of condemning evidence. And I think to myself, Is it a crime for a young Muslim to want to be with his friends in Como at 8.30pm on a Tuesday during Ramadan rather than at a Catholic meeting in Blevio?      

Witness No.2  for the defence:  Marco Nardini, an unemployed guest at the casa famiglia in Blevio, states that he saw Salifa Camara in the casa until 4.30pm when the defendant left on his bike. His bike.  Bike. A two-wheeled mode of transport. Not often used in conjunction with a bus. Again the prosecuting lawyer tries to make an issue out of the fact that Camara did not return at 7.30pm for the meeting. Nardini points out that guests are under no obligation to attend such meetings. The lawyer insists and seizes on the fact that the accused did not let anyone know he would not be coming back until late. Yeah. Like every single 20-odd- year-old I know. The defence lawyer makes the meek observation that it was Ramadan at the time. Again, the judge intervenes with another ‘Non ammetto la domanda!'  Ramadan, when Muslim brothers and sisters (there are few sisters here for the sub-Saharan African Muslims) meet to eat at sunset after a whole day of fasting. Sunset 5 June 2018 – 9.08pm. Non ammissibile.

Witness No.3: Laura Brombin, a volunteer with Como Accoglie. On the night of 5 June Brombin leaves Rebbio to go to the main local train station, Stazione San Giovanni. She arrives at 8.45pm. She knows the precise time because she gets a call from her partner and notices what time the call ends: 8.47pm. She turns around and sees Yusupha, who she knows well because of her voluntary work. 

‘Ciao Yusupha, cosa fai in bici?’ (‘Hi Yusupha, what are you doing with a bike?’)

‘è di mio amico.’ (‘It’s my friend’s’) 

The conversation carries on. Laura asks if he has eaten yet, seeing as it’s Ramadan. Yusupha explains that he is going to buy some food and meet up with his friends to eat in the park.  Laura and Yusupha then part ways.

Witness No.4 for the defence: a 25-year-old Gambian who speaks little Italian. The interpreter is called. She has had an easy job so far this morning, seeing as she has not translated one single word as the four defendants have all stated (when asked) that they are able to follow the trial in Italian. I'm not so sure this is true - legalese is difficult enough in your own language and downright impossible to follow in a language you are not yet fluent in. After several stumbling, misunderstood attempts at relaying the judge’s questions, the Gambian decides to take matters into his own hands and answers the questions in his basic Italian. The interpreter’s translating skills are no longer needed. When questioned, he states that he knows the two Gambians in the dock well, that they were all together at the lake to celebrate Ramadan, that the police arrived at around 9pm, and previous to that they had bought food at Carrefour by the lake.

Colpo di scena (A dramatic turn of events)
One of the two Nigerian defendants raises his hand.  He wants to make a statement. He goes to the witness stand and in his basic Italian states that Yusupha was not the man in the yellow T-shirt, that ‘non ha spaccato Yusupha.’ (‘Yusupha did not beat up the bus drivers’).  He gives the name of the real culprit: His words are almost indecipherable – It was ‘Jus / Chuse / Jazz’.    

The air becomes less heavy. I begin to breathe.

Next hearing - 2 July.  The modern newfangled handcuffs go back on. Yusupha makes it in time to raise his hand in a salute and smiles in our direction.  Francesca – another volunteer who knows Yusupha well - starts to cry. ‘Don’t cry, Francesca. Don’t cry.’ Tears aren’t going to help right now. Yusupha doesn’t need tears. He needs justice.

The hearing – 2 July - The Judge’s Decision: The Verdict       
In nome della Repubblica Italiana the judge finds all four defendants guilty as charged.  The Nigerian defendant who asked for il rito abbreviato (‘shortened proceedings’) receives a 14-month prison sentence, while the other three accused are found guilty with ‘aggravanti’ (aggravating factors) (including interrupting a public bus service, and resisting arrest) and receive 21-month sentences.  The judge orders an investigation into the two witnesses for the defence, who are charged with false testimony. The newfangled handcuffs go back on and Yusupha and Salifa are quickly led away to be bundled into the police vans and taken back to prison. 

During the hearing, an unidentified man walks confidently around the courtroom, chatting in familiar and friendly terms to the prosecutor and the defence team. He boasts of serving more than 20 years in the police force in Como. The day after the verdict, the local newspaper reports that the Minister Salvini, was being constantly updated about the proceedings by both the Procura and the Questura (the local police).  Members of the local government (the right-wing mayor, Landriscina, and the Lega MP and deputy mayor, Alessandra Locatelli) express their satisfaction with the outcome of the trial. Locatelli gives a statement to the local newspaper, La Provincia di Como’Meno male, sono molto contenta che la giustizia abbia fatto il suo percorso’ (‘Thank Goodness. I am so happy that justice has been done’),  and talks of the need for further exemplary punishments as an effective deterrent, and hopes all illegal immigrants will be deported as soon as possible. Local Facebook is awash with the usual vitriol against immigrants:

‘I hope they throw away the key. They should rot in prison in their own country’

‘Well done, Salvini. Carry on like this.’

‘Not in prison but out of Italy, a casa loro. They’re living the high life in our Italian prisons – bed and board, wages, lights, gas, no rent to pay .... a casa loro!’    

During the trial, one of the defence lawyers politely and rather meekly suggests that there might have been anomalies in the police methods used to identify the aggressors that could, under more normal circumstances, be considered contaminated evidence. The victims were shown photos of six African immigrants, including two of the Nigerians already in police custody. This meant that identification of the other two assailants was based on just four photos of African males: one of Yusupha in a yellow T-shirt, and one of Salifa wearing his grey hat, and two photos of African men dressed in a completely different way to the men who took part in the physical attack on the bus drivers.  Salifa’s lawyer suggests this might have led the victims to identify the T-shirts and not the faces of the aggressors. Yet such anomalies fade into the background and get lost in the overwhelmingly triumphant applause for a verdict which seems to please many and bother very few.   

The night of the verdict I go for a walk near the lake. Temperatures have soared into the mid-30s. Humidity levels are up and the mosquitoes feast on my sweating, damp skin. The air has become heavy again. Heavy and irrespirabile.  I’m finding it hard to breathe. When Francesca hears the news, she cries down the phone. I have no words of comfort or hope for her this time. Unlike Locatelli, non credo che la giustizia abbia fatto il suo percorso (I don't believe justice has been done) and I have some serious doubts that la giustizia è bendata (justice is blind) for a black asylum seeker in Como, Italy in 2018.                                        

Postscript / update:
The day after the verdict, I posted a ‘protest’ post in Italian and English on Facebook which I would go on to post every single day for 56 days:

e.g.: Facebook post 23 July 2018 

……Day 48 in prison.
For being black and wearing a yellow t-shirt.

Reminder: Lady Justice should be blindfolded.

‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.’ (Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

“The rule of law should be upheld above all for your enemy so that should it ever be the case, you can be sure the same rule of law will be applied for you. If we do not uphold the rule of law, what will happen to you if you are the accused.” (Quote from Roberto Rallo – lawyer and ex-member of centre-right local govt in Como. Taken from an interview by local journalist Paolo Moretti in La Provincia di Como 4 July 2018)       ……

56 days are the number of days Yusupha was held in prison.

On the 56th day of his incarceration, a week after Salifu Camera, he was finally released and put under house arrest. In the eyes of Italian law, he is still considered guilty of affray and will still have to complete a 21 month sentence despite the lack of any real evidence that he was on the bus or took part in the physical assault on the bus drivers. 

His lawyer is taking his case to il corto d’appello (the court of appeal) in Milan, and is hopeful that he will be found innocent. Many involved in this case admit that the motives behind the verdict are clearly political – two black African immigrants were wearing the wrong colour clothes, on the wrong day, in the wrong political climate. Very few are prepared to openly voice this privately held opinion. The reasons given by the judge for her decision were released on 25 July and outlined in the local newspaper, La Provincia, and are as follows:
-‘Il fatto che non si vede il Ceesay non esclude certamente la sua presenza sul bus’ (The fact that Ceesay cannot be seen in the CCTV film coverage in no way excludes the fact that he could have been on the bus.)
-‘Non si comprende come la teste faccia a ricordare esattamente la tempistica dell’incontro e della telefonata’ (It is impossibile to understand how the witness for the defence can remember the exact timing of her meeting with Yusupha and her phone call).   
It is interesting to note that no reference was made in the judge’s written report to the Gambian witness' version of events or to the Nigerian defendant’s spontaneous admission during the trial of 21 June that Yusupha was not on the bus.  The judge also used a legal technicality – recommending the two witnesses for the defence be investigated for perjury rather than declaring their witness accounts unreliable. By so doing, these two fundamental and key witness accounts for the defence most probably cannot be used in the corto d’appello trial in Milan as appeal judges usually consider such evidence ‘contaminate’ (contaminated).    

The day before Yusupha’s release from prison, a local charity group called ComoAccoglie (Como Welcomes) which works with the homeless, held a protest in one of the main piazzas in town. Around 30 like-minded people wore yellow tee-shirts and wrote messages of support and solidarity for Yusupha on yellow postcards.  A couple of days later, a local far-right group called ‘Como per i Comaschi’  (Como for the Comaschi) suggested we should all be imprisoned for instigation to commit a crime. Local FB again was awash with the usual vitriol but this time against, ‘i radical chic’ bleeding hearted do-gooders. In response to a comment I posted, I received strongly offensive comments targeting me directly.

I will admit to feeling a bit isolated during this whole Yusupha ‘case’. I tried to get numerous local journalists, social media influencers etc on board but was usually met with a polite ‘thanks but no thanks’ or complete silence. Not once, however, did I ever feel as isolated as Yusupha must have felt. 

And the good news is there are some really good people out there who worked extremely hard to get Yusupha and Salifu out of prison – from the local watchdog for migrants’ rights group to their legal teams to local charity groups who work with migrants. And despite the vitriol and the social media and real life disapproval we met with – especially from the local establishment whose feathers were decidedly ruffled, I feel that it was all worth it. however much of a price there is to pay for standing up social justice or human rights, it is a price worth paying.  I answer to no-one but my conscience. What counts is getting justice for Yusupha.               

Read more:
Newspaper article in La Provincia the day Yusupha was released from prison and placed under house arrest - https://www.laprovinciadicomo.it/stories/como-citta/comonon-era-sul-bus-dellaggressioneil-giudice-concede-i-domiciliari_1285969_11/    

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