Jun 14th, 2009
A new law gives an official stamp of approval to vigilante groups that have sprung up in several Italian cities, especially in the northern strongholds of the right wing, anti-immigrant Northern League.
The vigilantes can alert police to public order offences or suspected criminals but don't have the power of arrest.
One group, known as the Italian National Guard, claims to have 2,000 members. It plans to dress its members in khaki shirts, black ties and black armbands bearing a red symbol that critics say resembles a swastika.
The opposition Democratic Party warned that such groups set a dangerous precedent and harked back to Italy's fascist past.
"There was a period in Italy's history in which security was entrusted to people who went around in shirts of the same colour and we don't want to return to that," its leader, Dario Franceschini, warned.
The accusation prompted an angry response from the government, which said the vigilante patrols were a legitimate means of combating crime.
"Blackshirts? Just the words disgust me," said Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni.
The law was part of a sweeping security package passed by parliament in response to widespread concerns about crime and immigration. It makes illegal entry or residence on Italian soil an offence punishable by fines of up to €10,000.
Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency warned Italy yesterday that its policy of towing migrant boats back to the Libyan coast broke international conventions, but Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government vowed to continue.
Laurens Jolles, the UNHCR's representative in Italy, met Mr Maroni to complain about the deportation of migrants intercepted at sea, which began earlier this month amid steadily warming ties with Libya.
Mr Jolles said after the meeting that such repatriations contradicted the 1951 Geneva Convention, which was applicable even in international waters.
The UNHCR says the hundreds of people deported in recent weeks included asylum seekers and it called on Italy to accept them back.
"The repatriations will go ahead, as foreseen in the agreement between Libya and Italy," Mr Maroni said after the interview.