Archive for the ‘Italy to avoid’ Category

The parcel is passed

December 11, 2011

Giuliano Mignini, the prosecutor in the Sollecito-Knox case, has had his conviction for abuse of office — relating to persecution of journalists and illegal investigations (details here under the 20 April 2010 entry) —  quashed after the Florence appeal court ruled his case should have been heard in Turin.

In theory Mignini can be tried again. But it looks like his case can has been kicked way down the road.

Despite Mario Monti’s promises of ‘Change-Italy’, at ground level things look very much like business as usual.

The Italian press has barely touched on Mignini’s successful appeal. There is a short report here in Italian, and an even shorter one here in English.



A bit of Perugia in all of us

December 2, 2011

The trial of police officers involved in a wrongful 1980 conviction of 3 men for murder in Wales has collapsed on a technicality. The case has interesting parallels with the Sollecito and Knox case in Perugia. The three convicted men left no forensic/DNA evidence at the crime scene, despite a murder by 50 stab wounds. The man later convicted of the murder left plenty of forensic evidence, but police were obsessed with the other three suspects. As in Perugia, their theory was more important than the investigation.

It all looks rather Italian, as does the failure to complete a trial of the police officers alleged to have perverted the course of justice. However we must note that there have already been two enquiries into this case, and there will now be a third. That isn’t the same as Perugia, where the expectation is that there will be no enquiry, nothing will change, and police and magistrates will not even get a telling off.

And mayonnaise all over

October 6, 2011

In the finest traditions of the Italian judiciary, the presiding judge in the Sollecito-Knox appeal — Claudio Pratillo Hellmann — has been giving interviews to the press.

You can guess what he said: this has been a terrible mess, creating appalling trauma for innocent people, in particular the Kercher family. We really have got to get an independent prosecution service set up — like the CPS in the UK — and start following our rules about criminal investigations. Plus, we need a full public enquiry into the whole thing, not least the conduct of the police, why no tapes of the Knox interviews were ever produced, allegations of physical attacks on journalists, and so on. And don’t even get me started on Mignini…

But of course I am joking. What Hellman really said (let me stress I have not had time to read the original text in Italian but John Hooper is a serious correspondent) is that it is quite possible Sollecito and Knox were party to the murder, that Mignini is at the top of his game, and that the issues are really very complicated.

Many open-minded Italians will forgive Hellman because his brave decision to do the only sensible thing and have the forensic ‘evidence’ looked at by more serious people decided the outcome of the case. He is likely just covering his fanny, as they say in America. But in covering his fanny he is ensuring that everything will stay the same. Which means that people less interesting, less white, less attractive and less well funded than Sollecito and Knox will continue to get stitched up unnecessarily.

Witch leaves Salem

October 4, 2011

Knox is gone. Not only that, she flew — which is pretty compelling evidence she is a witch. Let those four years inside be a lesson to other young people thinking of taking a student holiday in Italy and smoking a bit of dope. Just as well Knox and Sollecito didn’t grow their own and end up dead in Perugia’s Capanne prison, like the hippie who built our kitchen.

I forgot to remind readers yesterday who have not done so already to watch this short interview with the chief investigator in the Sollecito-Knox case. Arthur Miller must be eating his heart out. His play was only based on a true story.


Writer Douglas Preston on Mignini and the case, and Mignini’s form with respect to the earlier Tuscan serial killer case. What Preston says is no doubt true, but the Mignini focus tends to draw attention away from what are really systemic problems in Italy. Mignini is a symptom. The incompetence of the magistrates compounds the incompetence of the police and unlike the UK — with the Crown Prosecution Service — there is nothing in the middle of them to act as a circuit breaker.

Before Mr Giobbi undertakes his next ‘exquisitely psychological’ investigation, he would do well to read this.

John Hooper does a Q&A in the Guardian that gives answers I would agree with to a number of obvious and important questions.

The ones that got away

October 3, 2011

So Sollecito and Knox are out.

My immediate reaction is that this is consistent with the behaviour of a survivor institutional-retard state. It is another moment, to use the phrase which Lampedusa never quite used, when ‘everything must change so that everything can remain the same’.

Sollecito and Knox are free so that we can get back to business as usual. It’s a sort of mini Mani Pulite for the legal system.

Anecdotally, what stands out for me more than anything is ignorance. I have asked four separate Italian lawyers, two internationally renowned and two from my local town, what they think about the Sollecito-Knox case and each has said they are sure that in some sense they are guilty. But when you ask why, you realise they are ignorant of even basic facts in the case. A small dose of northern European puritan professionalism would go a long way in Italy. This is a society where no one is capable of saying ‘I don’t know’.

Worth paying attention to:

One of the great UK long-form journalists was in Perugia tonight:

10.31pm: Peter Popham of the Independent tweets:

Weird mood in Perugia’s medieval heart, thugs baying for Amanda’s blood, robbed of the witch they wanted to burn.

The video in court is very Italian, lots of extras on camera. Sollecito, who as a local always seemed to accept that a life in jail might be his fate is more together. Knox, who stood up a the start of the appeal and took the fight to the jury, is spent at this point.

John Hooper toys with the Perugia is different angle.

I am not so sure.

Monday’s coverage:

The second part of this article highlights the position that Italian ‘justice’ has left the Kerchers in. Their suffering goes on because of the grotesque unprofessionalism of the investigation and trial. The Kercher family will hold a press conference this morning that will be blogged here by the Guardian. Their anguish remains focused on the idea that the use of two knives and the number of wounds in the murder must have required more than Guede. I can’t speak to this or to the behaviour of sex attackers who use knives. What everyone can speak to is the fact that there was no motive and no evidence to put Sollecito and Knox in the bedroom where Meredith Kercher died and a huge amount of forensic evidence — hair, hand prints, finger prints, semen, other DNA — to put Guede there. I wonder if at the presser the Kerchers will mention the fact that Guede can expecct to be out of jail in only seven or eight years after his sentence was reduced on appeal (largely, I would say, to ‘fit’ with the wrongful convictions of Sollecito and Knox). If you run a legal system like a bunch of adoloscents, there will be a price to pay. Laid-back Italy doesn’t seem so cool today.

The Perugia shock blog reminds us that Knox’s 3-year, Euro22,000 criminal defamation conviction for saying the black bar owner she knew had committed the crime is UPHELD. This is very important because it is tantamount to saying the police did not intimidate and hit her during the illegal all-night interrogation for which no tape recordings have ever been produced. I have blogged before that the obvious explanation for her accusation against the bar owner, Patrick Lumumba, is that the first clearly identifiable forensic evidence the police found at the crime scene was the hair of a black male (Guede). They knew they were looking for a black man before they got the DNA match to Guede’s police record. And, in the middle of the night, subjecting Amanda Knox to the kind of pressure and sleep deprivation that produces false confessions everywhere, they got their black man (a mild-mannered barman according to people I know who know him).

(Note that the Perugia Shock blog, written by an Italian non-native English speaker, sometimes slips into the kind of emotional language that is not helpful to understanding the case. However in general it provides excellent, fine-grained coverage that you will not find in a newspaper. The author is being sued for guess what — criminal defamation — by Mignini.)


Want to read the rest of the stuff I have written about the Sollecito-Knox case? Just click on the ‘Sollecito and Knox’ tag (subject Categories and Tags are all listed in the right hand border).

The aberration angle

September 19, 2011

The Observer runs a long article  to coincide with the start of summing up in the appeal case of Sollecito and Knox in Perugia.

The expectation of an acquittal is now such that journalists are moving on to the ‘What it all means’ phase. And this story is probably a taste of what is to come.

An unnamed source is quoted:

‘According to one local journalist with decades of crime reporting experience, the descent of American and British reporters on Perugia in the days after the killing “put pressure on local investigators to go too fast”.’

Only in Italy could a journalist — a person whose work is public by nature — insist on being quoted as an unnamed source. It is the measure of the society, and the shallowness of its professionals. Of course it is also shocking (and I think unusual) that The Observer would allow a journalist to be quoted as an unnamed source.

The import of the remark, of course, is straightforward. This is an early example of the aberration argument. It infers that this miscarriage of justice was unusual, explicable by its uniqueness, and partly the fault of foreign journalists.

Were the jailings of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four or the Maguire Seven in the UK aberrations that resulted from journalistic pressure on police? Or did these cases — and many more that were not terrorist-related — reflect systemic failings in the police and criminal justice systems?

The passage and application of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in the UK in 1984 is the answer to the question.

In Italy, there will be no gains from a monstrous miscarriage of justice. Instead, we are getting ready for face saving. The narrative of the professional class’s self-defence is under construction. It tells of a society incapable of self-improvement.

At the same time, inflaming those famous Italian tempers further, people around Berlusconi are suggesting that acquittal for Sollecito and Knox will prove that the police-judicial system is rotten to the core and therefore that cases against the premier are fabricated assaults. It is the little jump in logic that does not work. The system is a mess, but this is not reflected in the existence of cases against Berlusconi, it is reflected in the fact that justice is never done.

In northern Europe or the US Berlusconi would have been dealt with by the judicial system years ago. Here he gets to survive, with the only quid pro quo being that he must participate in the judicial circus. The latest gratuitous leaks and leaks from cases that have not been completed are surely a small price to pay for never actually having to pay for anything. Better still, the judiciary is a source of endless votes for Berlusconi, much of whose political support derives from popular frustration with Italy’s Third World legal system.

Homecoming II: the official response

August 25, 2011

The attentive reader will recall that having been robbed for the second time on the Fiumicino airport-Rome trains on 16 July I contacted ‘Dottoressa’ Caccia, responsible for statistical data at Italy’s Railway Police (Polfer) and that she told me to send my written enquiries to  the ‘scrivici’ (‘write to us’) web site of the state police. This site only allows a maximum 600 character (approximately 100 word) enquiry, so I had to be short and specific:

Sono stato rubato per la seconda volta a bordo il treno che porta a/dal l’aeroporto Fiumicino. Ho parlato con Dott. Caccia nel ufficio Polfer a Roma e vorrei avere i seguenti dati.

1. Il tot. annuale di denuncie di reato sulle linea Fiumicino-Termini e Fiumicino-Tiburtina nei ultimi 5 anni (meglio ancora dal 2004).

2.  Una conferma che questi dati contengono TUTTE le denuncie fatte — o sul modulo in lingue straniere o sul modulo tradizionale in Italiano.

3. Vorrei sapere se mantenete dati per il numero di giorni al anno che le telecamere sul binario 26 della stazione Termini non funziano (per guasti or altri motivi.) Se ci sono dati pubblici, vorrei ottenerli.

Let’s be honest that the Italian is not great, but nor is it difficult to understand.

The big surprise was that a section of the state police did reply:

Gentile signor Studwell,

la ringraziamo per aver contattato il Dipartimento di Pubblica Sicurezza fornendo utili segnalazioni sui furti che avvengono sui cosiddetti “treni a rischio”, in particolare nella tratta Roma-Fiumicino.

Siamo molto spiacenti per i furti che ha subito in due diverse occasioni su tali treni, faremo sicuramente tesoro delle sue utili indicazioni.

Premettendo che il nostro Ufficio è preposto esclusivamente al contatto con i referenti dei media, vorremmo comunque darle alcuni elementi di risposta alla sua richiesta in merito ai dati sui furti in danno dei viaggiatori.

Dal 2004 al 2010 è stata registrata una diminuzione delle denunce di furto pari al 62% per quanto riguarda gli episodi di furto in stazione ed al 45% per quelli a bordo treno. Il periodo gennaio – luglio 2011, confrontato con l’analogo periodo del 2010, ha fatto registrare un ulteriore calo dell’8% per i furti in stazione e del 21% per i furti a bordo treno.

Infine vorremmo rassicurarla confermando che i dati sulle denunce comprendono anche quelle effettuate sui moduli in lingua straniera.

Rimaniamo a disposizione per ogni eventuale altro chiarimento.

Cordiali saluti










Note the introductory line that ‘Despite the fact we are supposed to deal exclusively with the media [in this office], we would however like to provide you a few elements of response…’

I specifically asked for data on reported thefts on the Fiumicino airport- Rome  trains between 2004 and 2010. The reply states that reports of theft in stations and on trains fell respectively 62% and 45% between these dates, without saying where. There are further data about declining reports of theft this year.

The reply further states that the data include all reports filed on foreign language forms (the ones without reference numbers).

Since the press office failed to use a no-reply address (even Italians have tricks to learn) I asked for two clarifications:

Grazie per la risposta. Vorrei chiarificare 2 cose.

1. Questi dati sulle denunce che fornite referiscono a quale linea di ferrovia? La prima volta che sono stato rubato ero sul treno Termini-Fiumicino. La seconda volta sulla linea Fiumicino-Tiburtina. Sono due linee diverse. Volete dire che c’e stato questo calo sulla linea Termini-Fiumicino, or Fiumicino-Tiburtina, o dove?

2. Come potete sapere che i dati sulle denunce comprendono quelle effetuati sui moduli in lingua straniera cuando quelli moduli non hanno numeri di protocollo? E perche non contengono numeri protocolli?

And here is the reply:

I dati si riferiscono alle denunce di reati commessi “in stazione” oppure ” a bordo treno” nel loro complesso, ovevro senza distinzioni di linee o stazioni specifiche. è quindi da intendersi come dato complessivo.

il protocollo è inserito sulla nota di trasmissione della denuncia all’autorità giudiziaria.

nel nostro sistema giudiziario,infatti, tuttti i fatti di reato devono infatti essere comunicati all’Autorità Giudiziaria e per un lavoro più agevole si preferisce questo sistema, ma le confermiamo che tutte le denunce di reati vengono acquisite per i necessari studi sull’andamento della criminalità. siamo noi i primi quindi ad avere intreresse a ricevere denunce e segnalazioni per migliorare i nostri interventi.


The first bit begins to concede that the data provided do not refer to the Fiumicino airport trains… in other words that my enquiry has not been answered.

The second part becomes more interesting, claiming that the police add reference numbers to foreigner reports of crime after the reports are received because the system is ‘piu agevole’, which I would translate as ‘more efficient’ (or you could use ‘smoother’).

I would say that the system is more efficient from the perspective of policemen who want to reduce the amount of reported crime by altering or losing crime reports (see the scans of the forms and discussion here).

But as usual I am wrong, and am reminded that in Italy there is a binding legal obligation on the police to report all crimes to the judicial authority. Moreover, the state police assure, they themselves want to know how much crime is being committed so that they can hone their crime-busting techniques.

I asked for a final clarification on the data about reported thefts:

I dati che mi avete forniti, allora, sono di tutto l’Italia?

Se uno rilegge l’email originale, non siete stati chiari su questo.

Cordiali saluti,

And the final reply:

Gentile Signor Studwell,

le confermiamo che i dati che le sono stati forniti sono nazionali.


So, yes, they gave me national rail crime report data — and avoided providing anything for the Fiumicino trains, (where Ms Caccia told me on the phone theft is down by ‘at least 85 percent’).

The national data also indicate a big drop in reported thefts.

Do I believe even these national data? I think that given the use of unregistered foreigner reporting forms — which my policeman was so insistent I fill out in preference to an Italian form with a reference number — and given the remarkable obfuscation by the police statistics office, it is very hard to do so. Anecdotally, I haven’t seen anything change in terms of policing at Italian stations and on Italian trains in recent years, so why would reported crime fall so sharply? As I wrote previously, riding back and forth on the airport trains after the July 16 robbery, I was able to watch pairs of extracommunitari wandering the carriages, seemingly looking for victims in the most nonchalant fashion.

In the absence of measurable evidence to the contrary, my guess is that a significant part of what is happening statistically is that crimes on trains are not being added to the statistics. I don’t have more time at present to go into this, but it would be very interesting to know when the foreigner forms were introduced.

News from around the Third World

July 28, 2011

We start our report in the Third World’s richest nation, Italy.

I haven’t blogged about the Sollecito-Knox Satanic ritual murder case in my local provincial capital Salem*  for some time because the case has been unravelling as predicted. The star witness turned out to be a junkie-dealer who already testified for the police in two other murder trials (so much for drug addicts spending all day in bed). And the forensic procedures and DNA ‘evidence’ have been shredded by a long report from Rome’s Sapienza University.

We are now in the end game. The prosecutor Giuliano Mignini is firing off criminal defamation suits against people who point out he is unfit for office even in Italy at a rate unprecedented even for him. After the Rome academics introduced their report in court in Perugia this week, Mignini and his pals despatched two squad cars of police to Sapienza University in the capital in what appears to be a bizarre act of attempted intimidation. (The university sent them packing.) There is no real doubt that Sollecito and Knox are going to go free. The main point of interest for Italy-watchers is to ascertain that ABSOLUTELY NOBODY is held responsible for burning witches**. That includes the prosecutors; the half-witted magistrates; the gormless, overcharging lawyers; the thoroughly incompetent and corrupt police; the lazy and self-serving journalists who leaked the official side of the investigation at every turn in contravention of the law, and every other medievally-minded member of this shameful lynch-mob***.

When nobody is held responsible, it is important that you do not think of Sollecito and Knox. A couple of years inside will for them have been an interesting life experience. Think  instead of the family of Meredith Kercher, the murdered girl. They are the real victims of this pantomime performed by adults with uniforms and titles.

*Known in dialect as Perugia
** Should read: ‘sending innocent kids to prison for life’.

*** Should read: ‘professional mafia’.

A link to another part of the Third World that I cover is provided by poor old Google. The same US internet firm which last year decided to stand up to China by refusing orders to censor its service recently got a demand via Mr Mignini to shut down an Italian blog he does not like. The China decision has cost Google much of its market share in the Middle Kingdom as the Chinese government does almost everything it can to slow down and disrupt Google’s service (pushing many users to move to the Chinese Google rip-off provider, Baidu). In Italy, Google has already been intimidated under the country’s media laws in a case that saw some of its executives sentenced to prison (they won’t actually go, because that only happens to kids and poor people). So what did Google do when Mignini came knocking? The firm immediately pulled the site Mignini does not like (without contacting the blogger), even though there is no prima facie evidence it contains anything libelous under Italian law. The firm that took on the Dragon is caving in Italy. However, the blog in question has been moved to WordPress (which I use!), and which so far seems to have the necessary cojones for our Italian adventure.

The global battle against men who live with their mums, men with comb-over hair-cuts and men and women who call themselves ‘doctor’ but don’t actually have a doctorate, goes on.

We close today on the subject of the recent, horrific high-speed rail crash in China’s Zhejiang province and the official efforts to (literally) bury the truth of what happened (with corpses still inside). Rather than more news reports that you have probably already seen, here is a translation of Han Han, China’s most famous blogger. I wonder, is there anything in these lines that rings a bell for Italians with regard to the conduct of their own ‘professional’ classes:

“The Derailed Country”

You ask, why are they acting like a bunch of lunatics?

They think they’re the picture of restraint.

You ask, why can’t they tell black from white, fact from fiction?

They think they’re straight shooters, telling it like it is.

You ask, why are they running interference for murders?

They think they’ve thrown their friends under the bus. And they’re ashamed.

You ask, why all the cover-ups?

They think they’re letting it all hang out.

You ask, why are they so irretrievably corrupt?

They think they’re hardworking and plain-living.

You ask, why are they so infuriatingly arrogant?

They think they’re the picture of humility.

You feel like you’re the victim. So do they.

They think: “During the Qing Dynasty, no one had television. Now everyone has a television. Progress!”

They think: “We’re building you all this stuff, what do you care what happens in the process? Why should you care who it’s really for, so long as you get to use it? The train from Shanghai to Beijing used to take a whole day. Now you’re there in five hours (as long as there’s no lightning). Why aren’t you grateful? What’s with all the questions?

“Every now and then, there’s an accident. The top leaders all show how worried they are. We make someone available to answer journalists’ questions. First we say we’ll give the victims 170,000 kuai apiece. Then we say we’ll give them 500,000. We fire a buddy of ours. We’ve done all that, and you still want to nitpick? How could you all be so close-minded? You’re not thinking of the big picture! Why do you want us to apologize when we haven’t done anything wrong? It’s the price of development.

“Taking care of the bodies quickly is just the way we do things. The earlier we start signing things, the more we’ll have to pay out in the end. The later we sign, the smaller the damages. Our pals in the other departments—the ones who knock down all the houses—taught us that one. Burying the train car was a bonehead move, true, but the folks upstairs told us to do it. That’s how they think: if there’s something that could give you trouble, just bury it. Anyway, the real mistake was trying to dig such a huge hole in broad daylight. And not talking it over with the Propaganda Department beforehand. And not getting a handle on all the photographers at the site. We were busy, ok? If there’s anything we’ve learned from all this, it’s that when you need to bury something, make sure you think about how big it is, and make sure you keep the whole thing quiet. We underestimated all that.”

They think that, on the whole, it was a textbook rescue operation—well planned, promptly executed, and well managed. It’s a shame public opinion’s gotten a little out of hand, but they think, “That part’s not our responsibility. We don’t do public opinion.”

They’re thinking: “Look at the big picture: We had the Olympics, we canceled the agricultural tax, and you guys still won’t cut us a break. You’re always glomming on to these piddling little details. No can-do spirit. We could be more authoritarian than North Korea. We could make this place poorer than the Sudan. We could be more evil than the Khmer Rouge. Our army’s bigger than any of theirs, but we don’t do any of that. And not only are you not thankful, but you want us to apologize! As if we’ve done something wrong?”

Society has people of means, and those without. There’s people with power, and those that have none. And they all think they’re the victim. In a country where everyone’s the victim, where the classes have started to decouple from one another, where it’s every man for himself, in this huge country whose constituent parts slide forward on inertia alone—in this country, if there’s no further reform, even tiny decouplings make the derailings hard to put right.

The country’s not moving forward because a lot of them judge themselves as if Stalin and Mao were still alive. So they’ll always feel like the victim. They’ll always feel like they’re the enlightened ones, the impartial ones, the merciful ones, the humble ones, the put-upon ones. They think the technological drumbeat of historical progress is a dream of their own making.
The more you criticize him, the more he longs for autocracy. The more you gaomao him (piss him off), the more he misses Mao.

A friend in the state apparatus told me, “You’re all too greedy. Forty years ago, writers like you would’ve been shot. So you tell me, have things gotten better, or have they gotten worse?”

I said, “No, you’re all too greedy. Ninety years ago, that kind of thinking would have gotten you laughed out of the room. So you tell me: after all that, have things gotten better, or have they gotten worse?”

Worthwhile links:

No longer on Google’s Blogger, but now at WordPress (great courtroom detail):

Long reports can also be funny when they deal with Italian police conduct:

The highlights of this report (at least those that have thus far been translated into English) are here:

  • 5 big dos and 5 big don’’ts of crime scene investigation (Ooops. In Perugia the police and their ‘scientists’ did none of dos and all of the don’ts. Guess they had a bit of an off-day…)

  • Overall conclusions that police and their ‘scientists’ ignored standard international protocols, failed to perform some tests, misinterpreted results in others, claimed to have ‘scientific’ results where they did not:

Note the discovery at Sapienza of starch (err…food) on the knife between the blade and the handle. Prosecution claimed the knife had been thoroughly cleaned by the killers, but their great forensics still uncovered (internationally-unacceptably small trace of) Kercher blood on the blade. Presence of starch residue now shows satanic ritutal murder gang cunningly cleaned off blood but not food from the knife… just like they cleaned all their fingerprints, bloodprints, DNA, etc from the room where Kercher died while leaving Rudy Guede’s evidence all over the place. I say: Burn ‘em already…

Finally, here is that YouTube video of the chief investigator on the Sollecito-Knox case again, talking about his ‘exquisitely psychological’ investigation. There have been another 2,000 hits since I first posted it. It deserves 2 million. You will not find anything funnier on a comedy programme, so settle for Italian reality and send it to your friends.


July 25, 2011


On Saturday 16 July I was robbed for the second time since living in Italy on the same train, the one that runs from Fiumicino airport into Rome. On both occasions I was targeted because I was travelling with children and had a lot of luggage. The first time I was with my pregnant wife and one child, going to Malaysia to start work on my last book, Asian Godfathers. This time I was returning from a month in China with my 8 year old daughter where I finished my latest book, to be published this year. This time I lost not only passports, wallet, laptop, etc, but also 500 pages of interview notes. The robbery was very professionally done, involving at least two people, and perfectly timed as the train reached a station. The Italian passenger next to me was also fully taken in. Money and cigarettes were dropped on the floor, and my daughter’s case moved, by one person, my rucksack grabbed from behind my daughter’s back by another.

The theft problem on the Fiumicino trains is endemic and could not exist without either the studied incompetence or the collusion of Italy’s railway police (Polizia Ferroviaria or Polfer). In 2004 I was robbed beneath a mass of video surveillance cameras on platform 26 at Termini station; I noted the location of the nearest cameras and the exact minute the robbery occurred; the police blithely said the cameras do not work. This time the theft occurred as the train arrived at Tuscolana station. A young policeman who helped me check bins around the station in the vain hope of finding my documents said on the subject of police collusion that he himself found it strange when recently transferred in to this unit that he was not asked to start out in plain clothes making some arrests on the trains; that, he said, is the norm in other rail police units; here, he was sent out on day one in full uniform.

When I took my daughter back to the station where we were robbed (the train had carried on to the next stop), we found the decoy (the ‘palo’) in the robbery sitting on a bench there. I asked him in Italian: ‘You were the person who dropped the money and cigarettes on our train, weren’t you?’ In front of myself and my daughter he said: ‘Yes’. He wasn’t afraid, didn’t try to run. When the police showed up he said he was just a builder catching a train (He was smoking a cigarette from the red Italian brand packet he had dropped before my eyes and showed the police the charger unit for an electric tool he had in his pack — with no tool). They searched him, said he had no prior form, and let him go. I gave him my phone number on a piece of paper, begging him to ask his accomplice to return the documents. That, really, is where Italy is at. You beg the person who robs you for some sympathy, because nothing else works.

Then we went to do the ‘denuncia’ at the Tiburtina police station. After 17 hours flying, and two hours of being robbed and looking for my documents, I rang the bell and the policeman who came to the door told us to come back in half an hour. I asked if we could wait in the waiting room inside. I had one credit card in my pocket, but no money, because four bank machines I had tried were out of order (the phone lines were down). The policeman said we could not come into the station and should wait in the street. When we returned, a policeman holding an i-phone, sporting an expensive watch and wearing spotless Sunday casuals launched into the preemptive statement about what a terrible place Italy is, how foreigners are mad to live here and how under-resourced the railway police are. Who can say, but he did not look to me like he works night and day catching thieves on the trains. Instead, he patronised my daughter: ‘Ciao, bionda.’ She is only eight, but she is already old enough to spot a certain kind of Italian man.

The policeman was insistent that I fill out a denuncia in English — instead of the standard Italian form — saying it ‘would be translated’, and despite my expectation and willingness to do this in Italian. As ever, you wonder why. Do the police really tell us how many people get robbed on that line? All we know for sure is that almost all the victims are foreigners.

Throughout this whole experience, my daughter and I were calm and accepting of our situation, including with the man who helped rob us. (My daughter cried very briefly at one point, for just about 30 seconds. She was trying to blame herself for the robbery because she asked to sit on the top deck of the train.) When I thought about this the next day, I realised that we have become the kind of people who accept suffering and unfairness as a part of normal life. In a sense, we have become Italian. The problem is — with the very greatest respect — I don’t want to be Italian.


On 21 July I spent some time phoning around the railway police (Polfer) in search of published statistics about crime on the two Fiumicino train lines (to Termini and to Tiburtina). After some persistence I was put through to a woman who introduced herself as ‘Dottoressa Caccia’. Ms Caccia was the only person in my enquiry who was willing to give a name. (A web search suggests she is likely Barbara Caccia; like the vast majority of Italians who present themselves as ‘doctor’ she holds only an undergraduate degree.) Ms Caccia said that her office is responsible for Polfer statistics and, although my experience of being robbed twice on the airport lines was unfortunate, the statistical reality is that crime on the Fiumicino trains has fallen ‘at least 85 percent’ in the ‘last five years’. She was, however, unable to give me actual numbers, because she did not have them ‘sotto mano’.

After the robbery on 16 July, Gaia and I had to return from Tiburtina station to Tuscolana to see if my bag and papers had been abandoned (when we found the decoy sitting at the station) and then back to Polfer at Tiburtina station to do a denuncia. As we sat on our cases on these two trips, I watched at least two more pairs of impoverished eastern Europeans walking around the carriages in a manner wholly unnatural for actual passengers. Almost certainly they were looking for robbery victims. The policeman who took our denuncia said himself that we can have ‘no idea’ of the scale of theft on the line when he reflexively sought to defend the performance of Polfer. The helpful policeman who helped me look for my papers around Tuscolana station described the situation as running out of control, and said he understood that a member of parliament, whom he believed is from the Northern League, had been robbed on the train a few days previously.

There is no way that crime on these trains is down 85 percent. When I asked Ms. Caccia whether her numbers jived with reports received by foreign embassies about stolen passports, she pretended not to understand what I was saying and became defensive. ‘My memory is not perfect,’ she stated with respect to the data, telling me to write a request for figures on the state police ‘scrivici’ (write to us) web site. This site, I discovered, limits enquiries to 600 characters (about 100 words). None the less, I wrote a request, reassured by Ms Caccia’s guarantee that ‘If you write, we must respond.’

Thinking about Ms Caccia’s ’85 percent fall’, I looked again at the ‘foreigner’ denuncia that the officer at Tiburtina’s Polfer station had been so adamant I should fill out in preference to the standard Italian one. I realised what made me uncomfortable about the form: it contains no reference number of any kind. On Carabinieri denuncia forms I have looked at, there is always a ‘Numero protocollo Sdi’ and sometimes a ‘Numero protocollo Verbale’ as well. In other words the document is logged in ‘the system’. What I was made to fill out at Tiburtina station has no log in the system. It is simply a bit of floating paper, that could disappear without leaving any suggestion that it ever existed.

In addition, I note that at the top of the Polfer form are two small boxes to be ticked for either ‘stolen’ or ‘lost’. I missed these in filling out my form at the station. What then happened is that the Polfer officer photocopied my hand-written version, stamped a photocopy, and only ticked ‘theft’ on the copy he gave me. I very clearly watched him, through an internal office window, do the copying of the original and then bring a copy to me. I did not see him tick ‘stolen’ on the original or on any other copy, although he may have had me sign more than one copy. I cannot remember.

So. Is theft on the Fiumicino line down 85%? Or is reported theft down 85%?


The problem with my mini-investigation is that checks with consular sections of embassies do not provide much useful evidence. The British embassy confirms it has had several thefts on the Fiumicino trains reported in recent weeks. But the US, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian embassies say that while they do have thefts reported on the trains, they see no particular trend. The Japanese say that the vast majority of thefts affecting their nationals at present are on Line A of the Rome Metropolitana (underground) on stops close to Termini station. While the Chinese say that most of their tourists come in groups and are rigorously warned by tour leaders about the risk of theft on Italian trains. (The Chinese embassy web site has descriptions of scams like the one that happened to us written up in great detail. There is also a description of an entire Chinese tour group recently being drugged and robbed on an Italian train. Of course all this is in Chinese… if stated in Italian, the content would likely lead to a minor diplomatic incident.)

What the consulates told me privately that they see does not add up to the industrial scale theft which I suspect goes on perennially on the airport trains. The reason may be that victims only turn to consulates if they lose their passports or all access to money, or both. And the vast majority of people are not as dumb as I am in keeping all their stuff in their back-pack. They have passports and credit cards closer to their person, in a wallet or pouch.

If I had not lost our passports on both occasions, it is unlikely I would have contacted the British embassy in Rome. After all, embassies are hardly places that invite extra business, and the British one in Rome  is about as bad as it gets — one is told the (out-of-country) emergency number is for cases of death or equivalent seriousness, while the switchboard is only manned from 0915 to 1200 each day.

My first letter to the US embassy last week was met with a written response that any information about thefts on trains affecting US citizens ‘is police information held by Italian law enforcement authorities. We therefore suggest you to refer to the Italian Police/Carabinieri to get the needed information.’

The modern embassy/consulate is a pretty shameful institution, and robbery victims are sensible to avoid it unless absolutely necessary. So the one potential source of reliable information about the scale of crime on trains in Italy — and the Fiumicino lines in particular — is Polfer. Which brings us back to those new ‘foreigner’ denuncia forms with no serial numbers. I will pass this post on to various foreign embassies in Rome and see if anyone is interested. Hold your breath!


The header of a standard Carabinieri denuncia form, with ‘protocollo’ serial numbers, is here.

The front of the foreigner denuncia form I was told to fill out is here. There is no serial number of any kind. This is the photocopy of the original given to me by the Polfer policeman. He has crossed the ‘Report of theft’ box at the top left, but he did not do this in front of me for the original or for other copies. (I have blanked out my phone numbers on this scan.)

The back of the foreigner denuncia form is here. It is all ready for one of those Italian policemen who are fluent in foreign languages to bang out the translation and log the theft into the statistical record.

Lawyers, by a mile

May 24, 2011

It is said that estate agents are worse, but at least the average estate agent has the moral (if not legal) defence that he or she is ignorant. Lawyers, by contrast, have all had the chance of a university education, and so will surely have more to answer for when they arrive in hell (presumably to be greeted at the door by a lawyer). The latest antics from Italy’s legal profession beggar belief, so utterly selfish are the lawyers in putting their personal interests ahead of society’s interest. This country really has become one whore-story after the next.

No other rich nation can hold a candle to Italy’s professional classes, but lest the British be accused in the Umbrian expression of beingmosche bianche (white flies), take note also of the British Director of Public Prosecutions’ performance this week. Keir Starmer should have decided to prosecute policeman Simon Harwood for manslaughter last July. He is now being forced to do so because of the outcome of a public inquest and makes the most pathetic attempt to construct an argument that the evidence produced in the inquest could not, or would not, have been brought out in a criminal trial. You know that a lawyer, like Starmer, is on the back foot when he starts using verbs like ‘adduced’. It is tantamount to saying: ‘Please take it for granted that I am very clever and doing the right thing, and not at all the stereotypical yes-man who is given this job.’

People like Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, or Gareth Peirce are the Halley’s comets of the legal profession. You are lucky to know one lawyer who cares about more than their new Audi and their holiday in the Maldives in a lifetime.

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