Saturday, February 21, 2009

Italy passes emergency rape law

Italy's government has rushed through a decree to crack down on sexual violence and illegal immigration after a spate of rapes blamed on foreigners.

The decree sets a mandatory life sentence for the rape of minors or attacks where the victim is killed.

It also establishes rules for citizen street patrols to be conducted by unarmed and unpaid volunteers.

The number of sexual assaults fell last year, but three high-profile rapes last weekend sparked national outrage.

These included the rape of 14-year-old girl in a park in Rome on Saturday, allegedly by two men from Eastern Europe.

A Bolivian woman was raped in Milan by a man described as North African, while in Bologna, a Tunisian who had just been released from prison was re-arrested for allegedly raping a 15-year-old girl.

The decree, passed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government, goes into effect immediately but must be approved by both houses of parliament within 60 days.

It speeds up trials for sex offenders caught in the act, takes away the possibility of house arrest, and gives free legal assistance to victims.

It also sets rules for citizen street patrols, in which officials said retired police and soldiers would play a major role.

"Volunteers who take part in patrols will not be armed but they will have mobile phones and radios for reporting things to security forces," said Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League.

Local mayors would decide "how, where and when to use these volunteers", he said.

Critics say the measures could effectively legitimise vigilantism and xenophobia. The Vatican has warned against anything that turns innocent foreigners into convenient scapegoats.

Extended detentions

Many recent rapes have been blamed on foreigners, especially Romanians. Violent attacks on immigrants have since been reported.

Police say a mob of around 20 masked men beat up four Romanians outside a kebab restaurant in Rome on Sunday in an apparent vigilante attack.

The government has pointed to official statistics saying immigrants committed as many as 35% of crimes in Italy in 2007.

But analysts and opposition parties say many of these are related to breaches in immigration rules, and that foreigners have often been unfairly targeted amid a xenophobic backlash from right-wing politicians and the media.

The Roma (Gypsy) community, many of whom are long-standing Italian residents, have often borne the brunt of this reaction, they say.

Authorities in the capital began dismantling unauthorised camps housing Roma groups amid an outcry over recent rapes earlier this week.

Officials statistics put Italy's Romanian community at more than 600,000, making it the largest immigrant group in the country.

Some Roma are Romanian, but many are from other Balkan countries and some hold Italian citizenship.

Romanian Foreign Minister Cristian Diaconescu was reported as rejecting on Friday an Italian proposal that his country take back Romanians blamed for crimes in Italy.

He said 33 convicted Romanians were currently awaiting repatriation.

The Romanian government and the EU have both expressed concern at Italy's recent immigration policies.

Friday's decree also allows authorities to detain immigrants for six months, up from two months, as they try to identify them and process asylum requests.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Though Many Are Stalked, Few Report It

By Elizabeth Olson

When Vernon E. Miller was sentenced for stalking last November, cellphone records showed that he had made 3,788 calls to his former girlfriend in a single month.

He rang her doorbell repeatedly for months, the police said, and he had been seen peeking in her window. Mr. Miller had pleaded guilty to stalking the woman but asked that he receive no jail time.

“It is a crime of being in love with someone, and no one else in the world to turn to,” Mr. Miller, 40, told Judge John M. Cascio of the Court of Common Pleas of Somerset County, Pa., at his sentencing. He begged for “a little compassion” because his girlfriend “had found somebody else.” But the judge, noting that Mr. Miller, formerly of Cumberland, Md., had been accused of similar behavior before, sent him to the county jail.

Whether they are obsessed fans fixating on celebrities or former romantic partners, stalkers like Mr. Miller typically invoke spurned love — real or imagined — to defend their actions. But stalkers seldom have to justify their behavior in the legal system because only one in three cases is ever reported to the authorities, according to a Justice Department study released last month.

The report was the first in-depth federal look at the prevalence of stalking, which is a crime in all 50 states. While many people tend to associate stalking with the pursuit of stars like Uma Thurman and David Letterman, researchers found that 3.4 million people were subjected to stalking, defined as a course of conduct that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear. Women were more often the victims than men. And 11 percent, about 374,000 people, had been stalked for five or more years.

And then there were those like Cameron Wallace of New Franklin, Ohio, who endured the terrifying experience far longer. Ms. Wallace, now 28, was in her sophomore year of high school in 1996 when she sat next to Ryan Clutter in art class. Although they never dated or were even friends, he began turning up just about everywhere she went.

For the next 11 years, he appeared at her house or at the mall, sat behind her at the movies, sent demands by e-mail and threatened her life. He described how he would kill her: “He was going to gut me,” she said in an interview this month, still tearful.

Yet, she said, the police told her that it was hard to “connect all his actions” and that he had denied them. “They could not act until he did something more serious,” Ms. Wallace said.
Three-quarters of victims know their stalker, whether it is a current or former friend, roommate or neighbor, this study and others have found. “Often stalkers want to make their victims fearful,” said Eugene A. Rugala, a former F.B.I. profiler who advises on workplace threats. “They are thinking, ‘How dare you do this to me? I’m going to make you pay.’ But others feel it could be a way of getting back into the relationship.”

Experts say only a small number of stalking incidents reach the courts because cases are often difficult to compile. There is often no clear physical evidence linking a stalker to the victim.

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