Italian in Europe’s Parliament Convicted of Defamation for Racial Insult
ROME — An Italian member of the European Parliament has been found guilty of defamation and ordered to pay 50,000 euros, or $55,670, in damages to a fellow member of the European Union body, four years after he was accused of racially insulting her during a radio interview.
Mario Borghezio, of the anti-immigration Northern League, was convicted on Thursday for comments founded on racial hatred against Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s former minister of integration, and fined 1,000 euros by a court in Milan. The Parliament voted in October to lift Mr. Borghezio’s immunity.
Ms. Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, became Italy’s first black national minister in 2013 before being elected to the European Parliament. She said in response to the sentencing: “I’m satisfied, even though I don’t see this as a personal victory but as a strong response against racial hatred which poisons society. The sentence marks a line that can’t be crossed.”
During a radio interview in April 2013, Mr. Borghezio said that Ms. Kyenge wanted to “impose her tribal traditions from the Congo” on Italians. He described Ms. Kyenge, who was a member of Enrico Letta’s short-lived government, as “a good housewife, but not a government minister.”
He also said that as a doctor working for the national health service, Ms. Kyenge had taken the job of an Italian doctor.
Ms. Kyenge became the target of racial slurs and death threats on social media, weeks into her tenure as minister. She said in an interview on Friday that though she had won other defamation cases, Mr. Borghezio’s conviction had been the most important.
“The fact that the European Parliament stripped him of immunity is a strong signal on the part of member states that the words that people use carry weight,” she said. “This is a fundamental battle.” She added that “if you are a public figure representing a nation,” you have to be held accountable for what you say.
Ms. Kyenge said she was still waiting to receive the damages she had won in other defamation cases. “That’s going to take years,” she said.
Mr. Borghezio said on Friday that though he respected the court’s ruling, he felt as though he had been “politically persecuted” by Ms. Kyenge’s party, the Democrats, in the European Parliament. He added that his comments had fallen within his right as an opposition lawmaker to criticize a government minister.
“My fight was for the right to political criticism” and free speech, he said. “What I said didn’t warrant this treatment; this is persecution,” he added, promising to continue speaking his mind. “If I think a minister is doing something wrong, I will criticize; that is the duty of an opposition politician.”
Mr. Borghezio also said he thought the damages were “exceedingly high.” He told the news agency ANSA that the costs would force him to sell his home.
Ms. Kyenge said that the many messages of support she had received after the sentence was made public Thursday confirmed her belief that Italy was “not a racist country.”
She expressed hope that the court ruling would have a broader impact, one that showed that “some ideas, like racial hatred, have no place in our institutions.”
“This sentence is a lesson to all member states,” she said.
Mr. Borghezio was convicted on the same day that a Dutch court convicted 20 people of sexist and racist online hate speech against a black politician and media personality who was born in Suriname and raised in the Netherlands, a founding member of the European Union. The case was seen as an indictment of the ostensible culture of tolerance in that country.