‘Socially dangerous’ for having fought off ISIS

Stefania D’ignoti speaks to a group of volunteers met with hostility and legal persecution after returning to Italy from the autonomous Kurdish-held region of Rojava.

The entrance graffiti of the Ex-Caserma Livorno. Credit: Stefania D'Ignoti

At the entrance of the Ex-Caserma Occupata, a community centre in the Tuscan seaside city of Livorno, there is some graffiti of a woman holding a gun. She wears a green, red and yellow-coloured headscarf.

Posters bearing the word ‘Rojava’ and flags with red stars on yellow backgrounds signal the centre’s clear support for the Kurdish social revolution that began in early 2013 in north-eastern Syria – now named Rojava.

Rojava has a Kurdish majority population, but is also home to other ethnic minorities, including Arabs and Yezidis. According to Yilmaz Orkan, coordinator of the Kurdistan Information Office in Italy, signs of support for Rojava, similar to those at Ex-Caserma Occupata, can be spotted at youth and social centres scattered around the country, particularly in the northern regions of Piedmont, Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, where Kurdish refugees have flocked to since the late 1980s. 

‘In Italy there have always been people showing interest in the Kurdish cause, and since the People’s Protection Unit, more commonly known as YPG, fought and helped defeat ISIS, the topic gained international resonance,’ Orkan says.

‘But what made it even more popular recently is the trial of a group of Italian volunteers who joined YPG units on the ground.’

In January 2019, a court in the northern city of Turin began a peculiar legal procedure called ‘special surveillance’ against five volunteers from Italy who joined the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel), the primary component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, in north-eastern Syria.

The defendants, Maria Marcucci, Davide Grasso, Jacopo Bindi, Fabrizio Maniero and Paolo Andolina, pictured during the trial. Credit: Jacopo Bindi

Revolutionary ideas

The five volunteers – Maria Edgarda Marcucci, Davide Grasso, Jacopo Bindi, Fabrizio Maniero and Paolo Andolina – were mostly in Syria between 2016 and 2018. They had never met each other before this, but had previously been active in social and political movements in Italy. 

They travelled to Syria after becoming fascinated by the revolutionary ideas emerging from Rojava after the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011. According to Orkan, these Rojavan ideals are rooted in building a ‘multi-ethnic society, based on principles of gender equality, social cohesion and environmental protection.’ 

Four of them ended up enrolling in the YPG and Marcucci in the YPJ, the women’s combat unit.

It’s absurd to think that they’re the ones considered dangerous while real acts of terrorism often pass unpunished

In January 2019, Turin’s court instigated a ‘special prevention procedure’, a legal process aimed at potentially ‘dangerous subjects’, to limit the volunteers’ civil freedoms. 

Judges recommended they be expelled from their hometown of Turin for at least two years, revoking their passports and driving licences, banning them from all social and political activities – including engaging in public life by discussing their experiences in panel events and conferences. The suggested measures also included placing the defendants under curfew between 7.00pm and 6.00am.

The volunteers were labelled ‘socially dangerous’, and judges said that they represented a threat because of the combat training they received while on the ground.

The case attracted widespread criticism from young people in Italy and social centres like the Ex-Caserma in Livorno mobilized through solidarity campaigns to condemn what they see as ‘unfair’ and ‘undemocratic’ treatment, according to Elisa, a regular attendee of the community centre’s activities.

‘[This legal procedure] is a lack of respect for the European and international victims of fundamentalism and to those, Syrians and not, who perished in the war against the Islamic State,’ she said.

Jacopo Bindi, one of the five defendants, explains to New Internationalist that they all ‘felt [they were] victims of an unfair judicial system that focuses on our political views, rather than our actual conduct.’

Cracking down on dissent

Before leaving for Syria, Bindi was part of the popular ‘No Tav’ grassroots civil movement criticizing the TAV (Italian for ‘high-speed trains’) and more generally the unsustainable train infrastructure development in northern Italy. The group claims the development ignores the environment dangers inherent to the project, and the movement itself has been widely opposed by Italian authorities. Bindi believes his involvement in No Tav is what pushed judges to consider him ‘dangerous’. 

‘I was a young student curious to learn about new social systems that could give an answer to my ideals,’ he says. ‘So in 2017 I decided to go to Syria and see with my own eyes the revolution that was taking place there. I needed to witness change.’

Initially, Bindi planned to stay for a month as an international observer. Hundreds of young people from western countries were already on the ground, offering what help they could. Apart from combat help, they would help organizing activities at youth centres and engage with the local population through cultural and ideological exchanges, helping out with farming and ecology activities, or write reports on the ground for western readers.

Compelled to take a more active role, Bindi ended up extending his stay by nine months, during which he served as a volunteer for youth activities and at the media centre in Afrin. Of the five, he was the only one who did not get involved in military operations. ‘I was in charge of peaceful activities, that’s why in my situation, this scenario was even more absurd,’ he says, exasperated.

Claudio Novaro, the defense attorney of the five defendants, told the Italian magazine L’Espresso that ‘the court’s claim is that their military skills could potentially be used in the No Tav context,’ making it a trial against their potential intentions rather than actual crimes committed.

A solidarity march in support of Rojava and remembering Lorenzo Orsetti. Credit: Jacopo Bindi

The court case began a few days before another Italian volunteer, Lorenzo Orsetti, died on the battlefield in the village of Baghouz on 18 March 2019. His death attracted significant media attention in Italy.

Zerocalcare, an Italian cartoonist and author of Kobane Calling, a comic book about his own volunteer experience in Rojava,  paid tribute to Orsetti’s ‘martyrdom’, as he called it, through one of his comics.

Elisa says that Orsetti’s act of courage resonated with her because she sees regimes imposing their power through fear and violence as the enemy of her generation, as  fascism was for her grandparents, who lived through the Second World War.

‘I think many politically active young people felt represented by Orsetti’s commitment to social justice, that’s why we raised our voice and gathered social media resonance to not let this episode pass by unnoticed,’ she said.

Both the media and the committee in charge of their case labelled the group as ‘foreign fighters’, a term normally used to refer to jihadists joining ISIS, who both Grasso and Bindi were surprised to be associated with

As a result of the public outcry in Italy, the judges decided to drop the charges against two of the defendants – Davide Grasso and Fabrizio Maniero – and postpone a separate decision about the remaining three to the fall of 2019 which, according to the defendants, was a move to separate and weaken them. 

‘[But] when Turkey began bombarding north-eastern Syria in October, the judges postponed their decision again,’ Davide Grasso told New Internationalist. On 16 December  2019, prosecutors finally convened on a special surveillance against the remaining three, with a 90-day period to officially approve the decision to convict them, or overturn it. Finally, on 17 March this year,, the court of Turin decided to apply the special procedure solely to Maria Edgarda Marcucci, the only woman of the group.

The court based their decision on the notion that Marcucci was the most threatening case, because in the fall of 2019 she took part in a protest against the arm trade between Italy and Turkey while Turkey was implementing aerial bombardment over northern Syria this past October.

‘We all feel personally attacked by this decision, without distinctions. We still feel proud of what we did for Syria and democracy, to free people from fundamentalism, and to inform Italians about what really happens in Syria,’ the five defendants wrote in a joint statement reflecting on the decision.

‘It’s a serious action against a woman who risked her life to fight ISIS and terrorism and protect civilians.’

The trial has represented a mental burden for the young activists. Years after his return, Grasso admits he was shocked and disappointed to learn the news that his own country now considered him a threat. His bank account was shut down for ‘safety reasons’ connected to his service in Rojava, and his Facebook account was suspended three times for having shared photos and posts about his experiences in Syria.

On the other hand, Bindi says his time in Syria as a peaceful supporter was life-changing: ‘It made me realize our indifference toward what happens in the rest of the world, and how isolated we are.’

But when he returned, the trial aimed to limit his freedom to share his experience. Despite the year-long legal procedure they’ve had to face, both Bindi and Grasso feel relieved to have had public opinion on their side.

Stefania Pusateri, a humanitarian worker, produced a documentary about the trial, with the title Dangerous Subjects, to raise awareness about what she considers to be an example of legal injustice.

‘It’s absurd to think that they’re the ones considered dangerous [...] while real acts of terrorism often pass unpunished,’ she says.