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Rape allegations against Italian police dismay Florence

Posted: September 16, 2017 at 8:33 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

As a group of American students studying abroad followed their professor on a field trip through an exquisite Renaissance palazzo, an Italian television reporter around the corner offered viewers a different kind of tour.

In the apartment building where two of the students’ classmates lived, he dramatically pointed to the elevator and staircase where, the two students say, two uniformed members of the country’s iconic Carabinieri police force raped them in the predawn hours of Sept. 7.

The officers have been suspended; they admitted to prosecutors that they had sex with the young women, aged 21 and 19, after meeting them while on duty and in uniform at a popular nightclub and giving them a lift home in their squad car.

The students, whose names have not been released, told prosecutors they were drunk and were raped. But the officers said that the women were not intoxicated, and that the sex was consensual.

The episode has especially touched nerves in a city where American students make up a tenth of the entire student population and help fuel the economy, but also can be seen, and heard, drinking on the streets. Many native Florentines are moving out of the city, and those who remain are increasingly bothered by the proliferation of people who are speaking English in Florence and disgusted by the drunken behavior on their streets.

On American campuses, debates over what does and does not constitute consent and sexual assault, particularly when large quantities of alcohol are at play, have become pervasive and politically charged. Those delicate discussions, though, have largely not made it over to Italy.

Here in Florence the accusations have instead generated cringeworthy media coverage and conversations about American students behaving badly, with Italian television news programs accompanying reports with supplemental footage of anonymous women walking in short leather skirts.

And the thorny issues of victimhood, and where bad judgment ends and malice begins, have been eclipsed by the national disgust over the involvement of members of the Carabinieri, a police force that operates under the control of the Defense Ministry and is celebrated with collectible calendars and television dramas.

“I felt that I could always trust the police or the Carabinieri,” said Katie Burns, a 19-year-old sophomore from Boston who is studying at the Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici, the school the two American women attended in Florence. (The school declined to comment.) “That they are the ones who did this is shocking. The advice from the school is ‘Don’t trust anyone.’ ”

That message is a nightmare for Florence. The American consul general, Benjamin V. Wohlauer, who has met with the mayor and other leaders, noted in a statement that among other benefits, Florentine officials highly valued the “economic” contribution of American citizens. The city’s authorities have emphasized that they see this as an isolated, and freak, incident; that justice will be meted out quickly and harshly; and that Florence, a mecca for study-abroad students, remains safe.

“Our fear is that from today, a foreign student who sees an officer in uniform might be worried,” said Mayor Dario Nardella in an interview, adding that he was working with the American Consulate, scores of American universities and law enforcement agencies to make sure students had faith in the city’s uniformed police officers after an “unjustifiable” breach. “We have to regain their trust,” Mayor Nardella said.

The mayor is desperate to avoid the sensationalism that inundated Perugia a decade ago during the long trial of Amanda Knox, an American college student accused, and ultimately exonerated, of murder. He said he had urged the Carabinieri commander to hire more women and instructed city lawyers to file a civil suit against the officers, whom he called “disgusting,” primarily to ensure that the case moves as quickly as possible through the byzantine Italian judicial system.

The provincial commander of the Carabinieri, Giuseppe De Liso, said in an interview that when he heard the news, he called the American consul right away. Disciplinary action was immediately taken against the two officers, he said, which could eventually result in their expulsion, an outcome the Italian Defense Minister, Roberta Pinotti, who oversees the Carabinieri, has all but said is a certainty.

In his headquarters, a former convent, decorated with antique illustrations of Carabinieri uniforms throughout the centuries, Mr. De Liso said he needed to eradicate any suspicion of a cover-up and to restore the honor of his beloved police force.

“We can’t let those two officers smear 200 years of history,” he said.

Taken together, the accounts of local law-enforcement authorities, officials, lawyers for the Carabinieri officers and the women make for what many Italians have called an almost unimaginable scandal.

The two women arrived in Florence at the end of August for a semester abroad from their university in New Jersey. On Sept. 6, they began drinking wine and limoncello at a popular piazza, or public square, where Italians sip on the steps of a church and Americans tend to guzzle in the bars.

After midnight, they joined other Americans on a party bus up to the nightclub Flo’, which sits atop another piazza on a hill overlooking the city.

The Carabinieri command center sent three cars to the club in response to a customer’s complaint. Two cars left shortly thereafter, but the officers in the third car — Marco Camuffo, 43, and Pietro Costa, 31 — remained.

After 2 a.m., the officers tried to help the students call a cab, said Gabriele Zanobini, the lawyer for one of the students. When no cabs were available, the officers offered the women a ride home, breaking protocol by failing to notify their command that the students were in their vehicle.

The car drove the switchback streets down to central Florence. Shortly after 3 a.m., a security camera recorded it turning toward the students’ street. Mr. Zanobini said his client was so incapacitated that she could barely open the door. The two officers helped the students inside, where the alleged assault took place.

“She had no idea what was happening,” said Mr. Zanobini, who said his client was assaulted by Mr. Costa. “As soon as she got in the house she passed out from drinking. It’s shameful, he took advantage of a person who was as if in a vegetative state.”

Mr. Costa denied that accusation when interviewed by Florence prosecutors. On Thursday, Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper, reported that he told investigators that he simply followed his senior partner’s lead. Mr. Costa’s lawyer declined to comment.

Cristina Menichetti, a defense lawyer for Mr. Camuffo, a father of three who had been transferred to Florence only weeks earlier, said her client denied that he took advantage of the student, who he insisted never seemed drunk.

“He knows that he did something idiotic and that it has hurt his family,” she said, adding that he had “absolutely not” done anything similar before.

Prosecutors said that both women had elevated blood alcohol levels, with one especially high, but that it would take time to determine their level of intoxication.

About 20 minutes after the officers arrived at the students’ building, another camera, this one opposite Ferragamo’s Florence flagship store, recorded their car leaving the street. Upstairs, Mr. Zanobini said, the students entered their apartment and told their roommates what had happened. The students then called the police.

The authorities said that as the women were taken to the hospital for DNA tests and other exams, the officers returned to duty as if nothing had happened, even meeting with the officers who also had responded to the call at the nightclub Flo’ earlier that day.

But even as Mayor Nardella organizes meetings with law enforcement agencies, university leaders and students, the party goes on.

On Wednesday around midnight, bouncers at Flo’ turned away an American girl for being visibly intoxicated. Minutes later, a packed bus similar to the one that brought the two American students to the club last week, stopped in front of a towering replica of Michelangelo’s David. Students, many from Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici, spilled out, boisterous and tipsy.

“Go with the flow!” one young woman shouted.

Outside the Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici earlier in the day, another student, Giselle Canko, 19, lamented that many classmates thought the city’s noise and drinking ordinances “don’t apply to them.”

“They think, well, my mother’s not here!” Ms. Canko said.

As a result, Ms. Burns, the student from Boston, said: “Italians have a really low opinion of Americans. They think we are stupid.”

Still, none of that behavior could possibly justify what had happened to her two classmates, she said. “The scariest part is I would have said yes to the ride, too,” she said. “You’re supposed to trust them.”


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