Italy’s Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty


As the execution of Saddam Hussein loomed over the horizon as a grim finale to a bloody and savage 2006 in Iraq, forces in Italy mobilized to condemn this exercise of state sponsored murder and call for a halt to the barbaric practice of capital punishment. From the announcement of Saddam’s death sentence in November, both the minister of foreign affairs Massimo D’Alema and Prime Minister Romano Prodi repeatedly denounced the impending execution as an unjust and barbaric act to which Italy was opposed.

After the state-sponsored hanging was carried out, further contributing to the disintegration of the Babylon occupied by America’s always shrinking coalition of the willing, Italy again spoke up to condemn state murder. Iraq’s current president, Nouri al-Maliki, took offense and said “Italy and its Prime Minister Prodi should mind their own business and remember their own history with the execution of Mussolini at the end of World War II.” And Italy replied in force with a history lesson for America’s current choice of Iraqi leader. Mussolini was not killed by the state but in an act of war, and while not a historic bright spot, Italy is a country where the people are attempting to reconcile with and learn from their history. Even Italy’s bad boy of capitalism, Silvio Berlusconi, is opposed to the devaluation of human life through capital punishment. He called Saddam’s execution “disgusting” and a “grave historic error.”

On December 26th the leader of Italy’s Non Violent Radical Party, Marco Pannella, began a thirst and hunger strike, refusing all nourishment except for cigarettes — which he smokes in abundance — to block the lynching of Saddam and call for a Universal and International Moratorium of the Death Penalty. This 77-year-old Member of the European Parliament, known here as the Lion, is no stranger to fasting as a form of non-violent protest. Pannella has gone on many hunger or thirst strikes over the years to bring attention to human rights issues ranging from world hunger to shrinking retirement pensions.

On January 1st 2007 Italy joined the United Nations Security Council as a non-permanent member. Pannella and the Italian abolition movement, led by the Italian government, look at this as a unique historic opportunity to learn a lesson from our collective violent history with the International cessation of the barbaric practice of capital punishment. Italy abolished the death penalty in 1947 and has stood firmly in opposition to its continued practice. Italy tried before to call for an International moratorium on the death penalty at the United Nations, in 1994 under Berlusconi and again in 1997 under Prodi. Rome’s Colosseum stands as a reminder of her bloody, executioner and imperial past and a symbol of the international abolition movement. It is basked in light for 24 hours every time someone is executed by a state and every time a nation chooses to abolish the death penalty.

Italy is a country wrought with problems: corruption, division, an economy struggling to provide for its citizens to name a few, but at the start of this new year it is a country unified in its quest to uphold the human right to life without the threat of state sanctioned murder. The pages of Italy’s newspapers have dedicated a lot of print to this historic moment and issue. Much attention has been focused on the changing attitudes toward the death penalty in the United States, China and the rest of the world. Although it is difficult to imagine George Bush, the executioner from Texas, calling on America’s governors to halt executions, his brother Jeb has done just that in Florida, after the botched lethal injection in the state sanctioned killing of Angel Diaz. There is always reason for some optimism. France, once the land of the guillotine, is the first permanent member of the UN Security Council to say that it will stand with Italy in making this step forward for humanity. After initially stating that capital punishment was an issue of state sovereignty, the new Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, reversed his position and said that it is the role of the United Nations to work toward a universal moratorium.

While many look at Italy’s latest attempt to call for an International Moratorium on the Death Penalty as an exercise in futility, as it faces the veto of the United States and China, Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, called Italy’s push for a universal end to capital punishment as a “beautiful card of introduction,” for its arrival on the UN security council. Prime Minister Romano Prodi said optimistically, “humanity makes progress, not always, but makes progress.” Prodi continued: “the initiative is difficult and complex and we don’t need to underrate those people who oppose abolition, but it would be an error to underrate our strength because many countries have changed their opinion over the past few years.”

In this dire period of war, ecological crisis and global tension, progress as a species is desperately needed. Let us hope that America, Russia, China and the United Kingdom, the other permanent members of the UN with veto power, can learn from our collective history of violence to make some progress along the path toward a global society based on respect for human dignity and social justice. Italy’s push to abolish the death penalty internationally could be a historic step along the path to creating a world where all benefit from a more profound respect for life.

Now over 400 have joined in solidarity with Marco Pannella to fast for an end to the death penalty. As of this writing Pannella has resumed drinking liquids and is hospitalized under observation. He continues his hunger strike. To learn more of this movement and find out how you can help visit There are sections in English with links to other pages as well.

MICHAEL LEONARDI is an activist, writer and teacher from Toledo, Ohio who currently lives in Roma, Italy. He can be reached at or visit


Michael Leonardi lives in Italy and can be reached at