Since October 20, 2022, the imprisoned Italian anarchist Alfredo Cospito has been on hunger strike, demanding to be released from solitary confinement under the “41bis” regime. As of February 3, 2023, he has passed 107 days without eating.
In the course of the past three and a half months, Alfredo has lost more than 90 pounds. Bobby Sands, the member of the Irish Republican Army who was elected to Parliament during his hunger strike in 1981, died after 66 days without food. At death’s door, Alfredo has been transferred to a medical facility. His life hangs by a thread.
Denounced by the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and the European Court of Human Rights, the 41bis regime isolates prisoners from all human contact save an hour-long monthly meeting with family members through a reinforced partition, during which no physical contact is possible. Alfredo is forbidden even to pin the photos of his deceased parents on the cell walls without permission from the Ministry of Justice. He and several hundred other prisoners in Italy are kept confined to cells only a few feet square, subjected to permanent sensory deprivation and cut off from all information about the outside world. The psychological effects on these prisoners have been shown to be severe. In short, they are buried alive.
A prisoner in solitary confinement facing life in prison has very few options when it comes to asserting his humanity. His body, confined within steel and mortar far from the world of living things, is the last battlefield available to him. We cannot judge the decision to stake one’s life in such a situation; we cannot decide for a prisoner facing such conditions whether life is worth living. But we owe it to ourselves not to let him die in oblivion.
Alfredo’s strike cannot be understood simply as an attempt to sway the consciences of his captors. Even in Europe, the days when the authorities pretended to take an interest in the well-being of their subjects are long past. No one should have any illusions about how governments view the sanctity of life in the age of COVID-19, when the United States government can countenance the deaths of a million people without blushing while the Russian government explicitly employs convicts as cannon fodder. The newly elected fascist politicians who govern Italy have no scruples about consigning whole populations to death, let alone permitting a single anarchist to die.
Rather, Alfredo’s strike is a message to us about the conditions being prepared for all of us in an increasingly inhumane society. As it becomes common for those who hold power to treat human life as expendable, his hunger strike is a warning. If you love life, there are some conditions under which you, too, might be compelled to refuse it.
Alfredo’s situation represents a threat to all of us. When environmental protesters are charged with terrorism simply for occupying trees and posting on social media, it is common sense to anticipate that what is done to Alfredo today will be done to a much wider range of arrestees tomorrow. The 41bis regime was supposedly introduced to isolate mafia kingpins, but the real purpose of all repressive laws is to enable those who rule to suppress those they govern. Because none of those who hold power today have any sort of plan regarding how to address the crises that economic disparities and ecological disaster are imposing on us, their only strategy—from Italy to the United States to China—is to clamp down more and more violently on dissent.
We should identify Alfredo’s fate with our own. Such living graves are being constructed for us, right now, in Italy and elsewhere around the world. To fight for Alfredo—or else, if it is too late, to avenge him—is to fight to for ourselves, for our own freedom, confronting the inhuman regimes that will exterminate us one by one, whether by sins of commission or omission. They will go on imprisoning and killing us right up to the limits we impose by collective resistance.
Preposterously, the Italian government has sought to portray itself as the victim of Alfredo’s impending death. “An international anarchist campaign has been orchestrated against institutions and private and public property in Italy and abroad,” whines Antonio Tajani, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, attempting to deflect attention from the decision to bury Alfredo alive. “The State must not allow itself to be intimidated by those who think of threatening its officials,” declares Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, an avowed devotee of Benito Mussolini, as she prepares to celebrate Alfredo’s death.
We must be very clear here: the representatives of the Italian state are murderers, not victims.
For background on the court cases that put Alfredo Cospito in prison, start here. You can read some of the writing that Alfredo’s captors cited to justify isolating him here. There have been solidarity statements and actions on three continents to bring attention to his case; students are currently occupying the Department of Literature at the University of Sapienza in Rome in solidarity with Alfredo. There is a support page here.
Release Alfredo Now—It’s a Question of Justice
This is a country where there is a lot of talk about human rights when it comes to others’ governments, without having the courage to cast a glance in the domestic jails, without having the conscience to denounce the many oppressions that take place here. Right now, Alfredo Cospito is suffering a very serious abuse. Who is responsible? And who will have to answer for it in the future? The current minister, Carlo Nordio, who, although he could revoke this measure, does nothing? The Meloni government? Or, by any chance, would some cowardly person wish to place the blame on the detainee who was compelled to this extreme act? The transfer to the Opera prison hospital is in no way sufficient, because it is only a temporary palliative.
It is clear by now that the Cospito affair has taken on a symbolic and political value that cannot be underestimated. The culpable inaction of this government—the first post-fascist government in Mussolini’s country (much to be forgiven!)—has the terrible taste of repugnant revenge. Cospito’s body taken hostage, captured, to demonstrate farcical firmness. Despite all the interpretations of the homegrown liberals, ready to give them credit, government officials have no qualms about showing themselves to be petty fascist gendarmes.
Forget the hard line! Forget the blackmail! It is peculiar that there are even magistrates who use these terms. In whose hands are we? Here the terms are completely reversed. We call for Cospito to be released from 41bis first and foremost as a matter of justice, well before as a matter of humanity. It is not just about saving a life—although this politics of death, this necropolitics, is making us completely forget the value of human life. But the point here is: why on earth is Cospito in 41bis? What is he doing there? This question concerns everyone.
Let me briefly recapitulate. For injuring an Ansaldo executive in Genoa, Cospito was sentenced in 2013 to ten years and eight months. When he was already in prison, he was accused of placing two explosive devices in front of the Carabinieri cadet school in Fossano on the night of June 2-3, 2006, devices that caused neither deaths nor injuries. After his conviction, he was placed in the high-security prison circuit, where inmates are subject to close supervision and severe restrictions. From time to time, Cospito sent some writings to publications in the anarchist milieu.
The shift thereafter is what is being debated: the crime is reinterpreted and goes from common massacre to political massacre. Why? On what basis? A singular choice, since there were no new facts. The crime of political massacre was not applied even for Capaci [a mafia bombing in 1992 that killed a magistrate, his wife, and three police officers] or Piazza Fontana [a far-right bombing in Milan in 1969 that killed 17 people and wounded 88]. Here Cospito—with the endorsement of former Minister [Marta] Cartabia—is assigned to 41bis.
He ends up in a kind of sepulcher, a tomb: one meter and 52 centimeters wide and two meters and 52 centimeters long. Darkness, need for electric light, glimmers only at the top, at the surrounding wall. The cell is below sea level in Sassari prison. Hours of air only in a walled cubicle where the grating allows glimpses of the sky. Isolation, separation, elimination of even memories and of photos of family members. A kind of burial alive, of exclusion from the human community.
This happens in Italy in 2023. Honestly, it becomes almost grotesque to recount the anguish of the inquisition. We know very well that torture, a black phoenix, a practice that never ended, has taken on new forms in the democracies of the 21st century. Should we accept a state that tortures? That uses violence on a detainee’s body? Because there are many ways to exercise violence, even without leaving a trace. Italy has a recent past littered with victims of police abuse. It would hardly be appropriate, not even in the interests of the Republic, to witness an announced suicide.
Finally, I would like to touch on two issues that I feel have been overlooked. I will set aside 41 bis: I am against it always and for everyone (but I would need another article to say that). The first issue concerns the concept of terrorism, which is dangerous and slippery. Who is a terrorist? And who decides that? We know how all the emergency legislation, created in the American context, and that of other European countries, has revealed the violent face of democracy by producing abuses of all sorts, preventive torture, illegitimate administrative detentions. A risky path that undermines the right of every citizen. Does dissent constitute subversion? Does publishing in an anarchist magazine make one look like a terrorist?
The second issue concerns the very idea of anarchy. Much more than other countries, Italy has an ambivalent relationship with it. On the one hand, Sacco and Vanzetti [the Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in the United States 1927 in what was widely considered a travesty of justice], almost fathers of the free and anti-Mussolinian Italy, exponents of the great Italian anarchist tradition, without whom it would be difficult to even imagine the culture of this country; on the other hand, Valpreda and the bombs, the temptation to demonize anarchists [the Italian anarchist and novelist Pietro Valpreda was charged with the Piazza Fontana bombing and sentenced to prison; in 1987, he was acquitted when the fact that he had nothing to do with it became inescapably evident]. Here, too, Italy has much to answer for. In these hours, attempts are being made to portray anarchists as either monsters or demons, terrorists threatening “our headquarters abroad” (!), at best people fallen prey to a “blind faith out of time.” Grotesque visions, which would be somewhat laughable, if they did not then have the anti-democratic implications we see. Anarchist thought, which in recent years has appeared philosophically the most interesting and the most productive, is part of today’s cultural and political context. And, certainly, there is no comparing it with fascism and post-fascism, which should have been excluded from our cultural and political context instead.
In short: is Cospito in 41bis because he is an anarchist?
Let us hope that on behalf of Italian citizens, Minister Nordio will intervene by February 12 to remove 41bis. It is already too late. Cospito’s life, the rights of all of us, and this democracy depend on it.