A man shows his arm that he says was broken in a racist mob attack in Rosarno, Italy.

© 2010 Judith Sunderland/Human Rights Watch

(Milan) - Prosecutions of suspects in the racist attacks early this month against migrants in Rosarno, Italy are lagging, Human Rights Watch said today. But migrants accused of participating in the unrest have already been arrested, tried, and convicted.

One month after the targeted racist attacks on African seasonal migrant workers on January 7 through 9, 2010, only three people have been arrested even though there were numerous episodes of violence against migrants.

"African migrants have already been convicted in connection with the rioting, but investigations into those who attacked Africans are moving at a snail's pace," said Judith Sunderland, senior researcher for Western Europe with Human Rights Watch. "The authorities need to step up their efforts to bring the attackers to justice."

Three suspects were arrested quickly in connection with violent acts and participation in the unrest, but they have not yet been fully charged, nor have there been arrests for numerous other attacks. Five African migrants were convicted and sentenced last week in expedited trials for incidents during a riot that followed drive-by shootings of two African men on January 7. The Italian government's public responses to the violence have focused on irregular immigration and employment and not on finding and prosecuting the attackers.

Eleven African seasonal migrant workers were seriously wounded and required hospitalization after drive-by shootings and mob attacks with iron bars in and around the town, in the southern region of Calabria. Human Rights Watch interviews with nine of the victims indicate that their pleas for help were often ignored.

Racism and xenophobia toward migrants, as well as members of the Roma and Sinti ethnic groups, is a serious problem in Italy. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said that his government rejects the idea of a multiethnic Italy. A 2009 law made undocumented entry and stay in Italy a criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to 10,000 euros, while a 2008 law made an undocumented stay in Italy an aggravating circumstance in the commission of a crime. Political discourse, policies, and legislation over the past two years have reinforced a perception of a link between migrants and crime, feeding a climate of intolerance, Human Rights Watch said.

One of the victims, James Amankona, a 39-year-old from Ghana, told Human Rights Watch how he was attacked by a mob at about 3 p.m. on January 8 as he was coming home from work:

I saw 50 or so Italians; they called to me, but I ran and they chased me. I will never forget when I saw the crowd coming. I jumped on a fence to try to escape, but they grabbed me and pulled me down. They started beating me with the sticks and iron bars. I fainted. When I woke up, blood was streaming down my nose.

According to official statistics, 21 migrants were injured, including the 11 mentioned above who required hospitalization. Many others managed to escape harm in attacks, including two attempts to run them over and an arson attack on a house occupied by migrants. Ten law enforcement officers and 14 local residents of Rosarno required first aid treatment.

A total of eight people were arrested during the unrest, including five migrants and three local residents. The five migrants were convicted last week in expedited trials for "resisting public authority." Four were given suspended sentences and were released. The fifth man was sentenced to two years and four months in prison, with the aggravating circumstance of "undocumented stay in Italy."

Three residents of the Rosarno area are in detention awaiting trial. One is charged with "resisting public authority," and the other two with attempted murder for trying to run down migrants with vehicles, including a bulldozer in one case. According to information obtained by Human Rights Watch, the public prosecutor's office in Palmi does not envision charging them with the aggravated circumstance of racist motivation, an option under Italian law, based on the evidence collected so far.

A pool of three prosecutors has been created to supervise the investigations into the events in Rosarno. There are indications that the police are investigating the first incident, which took place on January 7, in which a Togolese asylum-seeker, Saibou Sabitiou, was shot in the lower abdomen. A high-ranking police officer close to the investigations told Human Rights Watch that the police intend to find Sabitou's attackers because they consider them "morally responsible" for everything that followed. To date there have been no arrests in that case.

While many violent attacks occurred in isolated areas, some took place in Rosarno within view of apartment buildings, stores, and surveillance cameras. Ben Gyan, a 31-year-old from Ghana, was attacked in broad daylight on a street covered by two surveillance cameras. Officials close to the investigations assured Human Rights Watch they were analyzing footage from surveillance cameras.

Progress may be hampered by witnesses' unwillingness to come forward. Both the police officer and a prosecutor told Human Rights Watch that "omertà," or the culture that strongly discourages collaboration with law enforcement, poses serious obstacles. Yet no special measures, including offers to protect witnesses, have been adopted to encourage tip-offs. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, neither local nor national authorities have called on residents to cooperate with the investigations.

"The authorities need to use all the resources at their disposal to encourage witnesses to come forward," Sunderland said. "That includes offering protection to those willing to testify, and sending a clear signal that these are serious crimes that demand justice."

Events in Rosarno began with two separate drive-by shootings on January 7, the second of a Guinean, and led to a violent protest by some African seasonal migrant workers that evening and the following day. In the most serious episode attributed to migrants, a woman and her children were forced out of their car, the woman was hit in the face with a rock, and the car was set on fire.  Every act of violence, including those allegedly committed by seasonal migrant workers, should be fully investigated, Human Rights watch said.

There were at least nine more targeted attacks on African migrants on January 8 and 9. On January 8, mobs of men wielding sticks and iron bars attacked six African migrants in separate incidents, both in Rosarno and in the surrounding countryside, while two men were wounded in a drive-by shooting. Another African migrant was the victim of a drive-by shooting on January 9, and attackers burned down a house where about 20 African migrants were living. All escaped without injury.

The national government's response to the Rosarno violence has focused more on irregular immigration and employment than on the victims, Human Rights Watch said. Referring to the violence in Rosarno after a special session of the council of ministers in Reggio Calabria on January 28, Berlusconi said his government had achieved positive results in its fight against irregular immigration and that "a reduction in the number of foreigners in Italy means fewer people to swell the ranks of criminals." At the height of the violence in Rosarno, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni blamed the situation on excessive tolerance of "illegal immigration."

"The government needs to condemn these racist attacks - unequivocally," Sunderland said. "Blaming the victims or ‘illegal immigration' only encourages mob violence."

 Law enforcement personnel began removing African migrants from Rosarno by bus on the evening of January 8.  According to official numbers, 428 migrants were sent to immigration detention centers in Crotone, 320 to centers in Bari, and 330 left the area on their own. A small number of migrants remained in the area, and more have been returning in recent days in search of work despite continuing tensions and fears.

The majority of those removed had legal residency and work permits. Despite initial assurances to the contrary, Maroni announced that all those without legal papers will be expelled from Italy. But in a positive move, the Italian government has begun granting one-year renewable humanitarian visas to the seriously injured victims who did not have legal status, Human Rights Watch said.

Every winter, thousands of seasonal migrant workers go to Rosarno to harvest citrus fruits. Most are hired without legal employment contracts, and working conditions are often exploitative, including low pay, failure to pay, and abusive treatment. As documented by Doctors Without Borders and local associations, many live in abandoned buildings on the outskirts of Rosarno and in the neighboring countryside, with no electricity, no running water, and little protection from the elements.

A group of migrants were evicted from an informal settlement on the outskirts of Rosarno by order of the local government on January 22. Human Rights Watch had visited the settlement, known as the "House of the Egyptians" due to its largely North African population, the day before. The men living there said they did not know where they would go to find shelter.

There has been previous violence against migrant workers in Rosarno. In December 2008, two Ivorian men were seriously wounded when gunmen opened fire on a group of migrant workers. Andrea Fortugno, 20, was convicted in the shooting in May 2009 and sentenced to 16 years in prison.