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2003 12 23 * Parliament Magazine - THE RADICAL / A passionate advocate of justice and champion of prison reform, Maurizio Turco spoke to Brian Johnson about direct action, and doing what you have to do.


They couldn’t tell him how many prisons there were, or how many people were incarcerated, and anyway, the Director General of Prison Administration had said that there was definitely no prison in the town of Secondigliano. So he went there, found the prison, talked to the inmates and started Io build up a map of Italy's secret penal complex. "In the end there were 13 prisons with more than 600 inmates scattered across the country," says Maurizio Turco.
Italy's regime of detention centres for people accused of being associated with the mafia have been a cause for concern for a number of years, with allegations of ill treatment reaching the ears of organisations such as Amnesty International.

A strong believer in human rights and justice, Turco used his parliamentary privilege to visit the prisons and to highlight the conditions for inmates. His subsequent book, "Tortura Democratica" caused considerable embarrassment to the Italian authorities when it was published earlier this year.
Successive Italian governments have found it politically expedient to continue locking these people up. "Every year the Italian Justice Ministry has to approve that these people have to be kept under this regime, for another year" adds Turco.

It became a kind of routine exercise with one under secretary of justice even admitting to the Italian Parliament's antimafia committee that he signed the renewal papers without reading them. "The Italian government were more concerned with security than with human rights. Even accused criminals have rights" suggests Turco.

His expose, although causing a huge stir, was met with indifference by Italy's political establishment. "I expected a reaction to to the book, as I had told everyone where these prisons were and who was in them, so in a way I was revealing a state secret, but the establishment preferred not to talk about it, because they know that what they are doing is on the brink of the rule of law." 
There have been accusations that the fight against the mafia in Italy has to a certain extent undermined Italy's justice system. Turco suggests that the battle has elevated some judges into celebrities and that judicial careers have been built on the back of the mafia campaign, perhaps to the detriment of the rule of law.

He has recently been approved as draftsman on a report on the rights of prisoners in the EU, and is keen to get first hand experience of Europe's prison system. "The first thing I will do is ask each member states' Justice Ministry for permission to visit their prisons, particularly any special regimes similar to those I found in Italy. I want to visit at least one in each country because this will give me some idea of how prisoners' rights are being respected and will help to highlight the right to a fair trial."

He is under no allusion that his report will be easy. "I expect some tough opposition from the member states and from many MEPs, because prisons are a difficult issue for governments. Many believe that prison is a way to re-educate people, this is what everyone says, but if you actually visit a prison you can see that it is just a punishment, where everyday rights are frequently violated. You can understand it better if you can see it with your own eyes." He worries that there is an underlying belief that because someone is in jail, then somehow they are entitled to lesser rights.

But difficult issues are not a problem for Turco, the President of the Radical MEPs of the Lista Bonino. Since becoming an MEP in 1999, ha has fought for what ha believes are the rights of EU citizens and as a radical member, Turco is no stranger to direct action. From going on hunger strike to highlight violations of constitutional law in Italy, to initiating legal proceedings against the Council for access to documents, Turco attacks what he considers to be injustice at every opportunity. "I am passionate about justice: it comes from the fact that to me justice is a pillar for society. So either as a radical I fight to guarantee respect of the law, to have it applied, or I break it deliberately and in a non violent way to either change it or to show how absurd a certain law is."

Urbane and articulate, Turco doesn't look like your everyday radical. His father was a local councillor for the Christian Democrats, and Turco became interested in politics while he was at school, helping to collect signatures for the radical party for a campaign to legalise soft drugs. "It was not a reaction against my family, but something rational that came from the books I was reading at school and from what I was seeing on television.”

A member of Parliament's Committee on Citizen's Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs, Turco has reported on judicial issues, including a number of reports on Europol. He was also an outspoken member and critic of parliament's investigation of the Echelon interception system, causing a furore at the final temporary committee meeting, accusing Europe of establishing its own Echelon type system and arguing that the year long parliamentary investigation had been nothing but a smokescreen. 
"The best piece of advice I’ve ever received was from fellow MEP Marco Pannella who told me "do what you have Io do and it will happen what can happen." Turco explains, "you see in a way it means you have to do everything you canto reach a certain objective but the result is not in your hands, but at least you've done whatever you could to reach it." He has frequently been accused of attention grabbing in Parliament, but Turco is dismissive, "Parliament should be a place where you have conflict and where you clash over different ideas, but here in the European Parliament, it's all about compromise solutions. This to me is contrary to politics."

He is worried about the future of the Union, believing that it is too bureaucratic. "Look at the constitution; it's not a real constitution, it's impossible to understand, it's impossible to explain how it works. For a normal citizen it's impossible to understand the game."

Always on the lookout for new challenges, I ask him what he would like to investigate next. He smiles when responding, "The workings of the Vatican Bank. It is the only money laundering system still allowed at the heart of the European Union. If I could get my hands on data related to their financial operations, I would be very happy and very busy."

Maurizio Turco
Born: 18th April 1960, Taranto 
European Commission: Member of Commissioner Emma Bonino's cabinet
Parliament: President of the Radical MEPs of the Lista Bonino, member of the committee on Citizen's Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs, substitute member on the committee on Regional Policy, Transport and Tourism and on the committee on women's rights and Equal Opportunities. Member of the Delegation for relations with the countries of South-East Europe