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An alleged gang rape shocks Italy, and provides fodder for an ascendant far right

By Barbie Latza Nadeau, CNN

Rome (CNN) — Italy has been shaken by the alleged gang rape of a 13-year-old girl in front of her boyfriend in a public park in the Sicilian city of Catania, the latest in a string of shocking sexual attacks in the country.

The case is reminiscent of two alleged gang rapes last summer. A group of seven men and teenage boys between the ages of 15 and 18 are currently on trial for the alleged rape of a 19-year-old girl in Palermo in August.

Weeks later nine young men were arrested and charged with allegedly raping two cousins aged 10 and 12 near Naples and broadcasting the attack live on social media. They, too, are facing trial.

Last month’s alleged gang rape in Catania has become not only a symbol of violence against women in the country, but a cause célèbre for Italy’s far-right government.  The seven suspected perpetrators were all Egyptian migrants, three of them under the age of 18, Catania police confirmed to CNN.

CNN approached the suspect’s lawyers for comment. Lawyers for three of them said their clients denied involvement in the actual assault, while the others would not comment because their clients are minors.

The case was soon seized upon as evidence that migrants should be blocked from entering the country.

Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, came to power in September 2022 on an anti-immigration platform, but her efforts to curb irregular migration into the country have so far been unsuccessful.

The men accused in the latest Sicilian case entered Italy by boat in 2021 and 2022 as unaccompanied minors, according to Catania police. Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, one of the country’s most visible far-right figures, said on X that they should not have been allowed to stay.

Meanwhile, during a visit to Catania, Meloni expressed her solidarity with the alleged rape victim and her family.

“The state will be there, and the state will guarantee that justice will be done,” she said.

The ways in which the cases between those with Italian suspects and those with Egyptian suspects are being handled are already drawing scrutiny.

The men accused of raping the 19-year-old woman in Palermo have been granted fast-track trials, their lawyers told CNN, which means they will be held behind closed doors and sealed.

The Egyptian suspects have been appointed lawyers who have not yet entered a plea, but the prosecutor in the case has already filed additional charges tied to illegal immigration, Alessandro Fidone, the court appointed lawyer representing two of the suspects told CNN.

Those who were now over the age of 18, and therefore not categorized as unaccompanied minors, no longer had the right to stay in the country because Egyptians do not qualify for asylum in Italy.

Italy’s interior ministry has called for a thorough review of all centers housing unaccompanied minors to see if similar cases exist.

Migration blamed

Italy has long struggled with the problem of gender-based violence.

In November, both houses of parliament unanimously passed a new measure strengthening punishments against perpetrators of gender-based violence and increasing protective measures for women who fear for their lives.

The legislation was inspired by the case of Giulia Cecchettin, a 22-year-old woman murdered by an ex-boyfriend. She was one of 118 femicides in Italy last year. In 2022, women were the victims of 91% of homicides committed by family members, partners or former partners, according to the European Data Journalism Network.

“Violence against women is a phenomenon that’s more or less present in all countries, caused by structural causes like the disparity between men and women, stereotypes and prejudices,” Elena Biaggioni, vice president of D.i.Re, a national association that coordinates anti-violence centers and women’s shelters, said last June.

Speaking at a protest after a pregnant woman was allegedly stabbed to death by her partner, she added:  “But of course in countries where there’s a macho culture and sexism is stronger, like Italy, this violence is justified in a different way.”

Yet in the latest case, officials have centered their attention on the background of the alleged perpetrators.

The judge investigating the most recent case, Carlo Umberto Cannella, said the suspects were likely to reoffend because they were not “accustomed to civilization.”

He ruled that they should all remain in prison while the investigation is underway.

“It appears clear that there is a danger of repetition of the crime also in light of the fact that the horror only ended thanks to the girl’s attempt to free herself,” Cannella said  Wednesday as he ruled that the suspects should not be released on bail, according to a court spokesperson.

In a scathing op-ed in the right-leaning newspaper Il Giornale, which was founded by the family of the late former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the editors also blamed migration for the alleged Sicily rape.

“Why are these individuals, without any requirement to access international protection, still in Italy and have not been subject to expulsion?” the editors wrote.

“Because upon arrival in our country they declared themselves minors and the law prevents the rejection of irregular immigrants who have not yet reached the age of majority. Now they will go to trial for rape but, in the meantime, that little girl will forever carry with her the pain and trauma of rape, suffered at just 13 years old. This is not the first case of non-EU minors being welcomed into Italian facilities and then engaging in criminal activities.”

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