BERLUSCONI AND AMANDA KNOX: The decision by an Italian appeals court to clear Amanda Knox of murder was an embarrassment for Italian police and prosecutors, and gave allies of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi an opportunity to push a longtime agenda.
Soon after the decision was announced, Angelino Alfano, former minister of justice and now secretary of Berlusconi’s party, accused the appellate court judges of incompetence, adding that “they never pay” for their mistakes. The right-wing newspaper Libero titled its front-page editorial “Silvio Like Amanda,” portraying them both as victims of an unjust and persecutory system. It was the latest episode in an enduring strategy in which Berlusconi and his allies demonize judges in an attempt to shape public opinion and ultimately push for radical judicial reform. Proposed legislation would restructure the state body that assures the autonomy of the Italian judiciary—half of its members would be elected by Parliament—and would also allow members of Parliament to determine which crimes ought to be a priority for investigation by the courts.
Analysts say that the reforms being pushed by Berlusconi and Co. would compromise the constitutional division of state powers. Indeed, allowing politicians to infiltrate such check-and-balance mechanisms is especially concerning in a country where eighteen politicians who won seats in the 2008 parliamentary elections were previously convicted of some kind of crime.
The renewed public debate on judicial reform comes at an auspicious moment: Berlusconi is about to face trial for luring a minor into prostitution—his infamous “bunga bunga parties.” Sarcastically defined by Berlusconi’s lawyer as “the perfect trial” for its complicated tangle of sex, politics and money, the case has the potential to erode the image Berlusconi has built for himself: as a victim of a politicized judiciary. This image has allowed him to push for legislation that would assure him a life above the law. In one case, the prime minister faced charges of accounting fraud; so he successfully sought to decriminalize accounting fraud. In another case, he was accused of bribing judges; so he pushed legislation to shield top leaders from criminal prosecution (the law passed but was later stuck down by the constitutional court).
With Berlusconi’s government at risk of falling apart, the response to the Knox verdict by his allies shows that they have no intention of giving up their seats in Parliament. The propaganda is back on. PAOLO M.C. CRAVERO
PUNISHING DOCTORS IN BAHRAIN: Between September 25 and October 6, Bahrain’s military courts handed out sentences that add up to nearly 2,500 years in prison. The 200-plus defendants, arrested during protests against the government in March, included medical personnel, teachers and political activists. There was one death sentence, for the killing of a police officer.
Among the most prominent defendants are twenty medical workers accused of attempting a coup, along with possession of weapons and occupying a public building (Salmaniya Medical Center, where a number of them worked). The prosecution of the medics—who received between five and fifteen years in prison for providing medical treatment to protesters—has sparked an international outcry. Among the less-known cases are thirty-two men sentenced to fifteen years each for an arson attack on a farm belonging to a member of the royal family, as well as a ten-year sentence handed down to the president of Bahrain’s teachers union.
The sentences were criticized by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton urged the Bahraini government to accept a requested visit by the UN high commissioner for human rights. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has come under fire for striking a deal in September to sell $53 million worth of military supplies to Bahrain.
Hundreds of people remain imprisoned. According to Sayed Mohsin Alalawi, a prominent lawyer defending many of the accused, most of the cases rely on forced confessions. The convicted doctors and others have described beatings, sleep deprivation and threats of sexual abuse during the months of awaiting trial. On October 7, a 16-year-old boy was killed during protests near Bahrain’s capital, Manama.
A week after the doctors were sentenced, Bahrain’s attorney general, Ali Alboainain, suddenly announced that they would be retried in civilian courts, a development lawyers have interpreted as an appeal rather than a new trial. “No doctors or other medical personnel may be punished by reason of the fulfillment of their humanitarian duties or their political views,” he said. ALA’A SHEHABI
REVISIONIST HISTORY: In a report released by the Albert Shanker Institute in September, a trio of scholars delivered a stinging indictment of the twisted treatment of labor history in US textbooks. The authors reviewed the high school volumes of the four major textbook chains (which together are estimated to represent the majority of the market) and found that they portray labor strikes as violent and counterproductive while paying little attention to employers’ role in instigating—or violently repressing—them. Major reforms like the New Deal are credited to politicians, with hardly any acknowledgment of the role of labor. Social movements for civil rights and women’s equality are divorced from labor concerns or participation. And after 1960, unions virtually vanish—as does workplace injustice.
Taken together, the narrative that emerges is one in which unions arose to address now-expired injustices, achieving only limited success, and then were replaced by legal regulations and enlightened business leaders. Not coincidentally, that’s the impression you’d get from a lot of our newspapers, politicians and TV shows too.
Such warped history leaves a warped view of democracy, in which change trickles down from the top and injustice eventually resolves itself. This is the view students are getting in their schoolbooks.
“If, while driving to school, students happen to see the bumper sticker: ‘Unions: the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend,’ that may be more exposure to American labor’s historic role as a force for social progress than they will ever get in the classroom,” the authors wrote.
To read the study, visit ashankerinst.org.JOSH EIDELSON