An Italian mayor who was lauded for his treatment of migrants and refugees but then accused of corruption has been told by a court that he can no longer set foot in the town in which he has spent the last 20 years.
Domenico Lucano, the mayor of Riace in Calabria, was arrested earlier this month and placed under house arrest, accused of irregularities in handing out tenders for council contracts and of arranging a marriage of convenience for an African migrant woman.
He denies the accusations.
For the last 20 years he has welcomed migrants to Riace, a hilltop town which had suffered decades of chronic depopulation and economic decline.
His supporters say he is being deliberately persecuted by Italy’s coalition and in particular by Matteo Salvini, the combative interior minister who has created an increasingly hostile climate for migrants and refugees.
The government says it has nothing to do with the investigation, which is being conducted by the judiciary, but Mr Salvini has gloated over the prosecution of the mayor.
Mr Lucano, 60, has now been released from house arrest but told by a court that he is banished from his home in Riace, a decision that he described as “absurd”.
“Where should I go? It’s absurd,” he said. “I feel very bitter. By now it should be clear to everyone that this is a politically-motivated process. I’m happy to be free again but the judges have treated me like I’m a dangerous criminal.”
He said he was now, in practice, the “ex-mayor of Riace”, even though he had not been voted out or dismissed.
Mr Lucano left Riace on Wednesday but told reporters that he had no idea where he would live pending his enforced exile.
His partner, Tesfahun Lemlem, originally from Ethiopia, faces similar charges but was told by the court that she could return to Riace.
The couple will be allowed to see each other as long as they meet outside the town, pending the investigation.
The treatment of Mr Lucano, who two years ago was named by Fortune magazine as one of the world’s 50 most inspirational personalities, has been strongly criticised by civil society groups and opposition MPs.
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The United Nation’s refugee agency said Mr Lucano had become “the symbol of the Italy that welcomes migrants,” it said.
“We express concern for the migrants and refugees who fear that they have lost a guide who has constantly supported them,” the UNHCR said.
Angelo Bonelli, a politician with the Greens Party, said that banning the mayor from his home town was akin to the treatment meted out to “mafiosi and members of the ‘Ndrangheta (Calabria’s mafia).” He added: “Italy is now a country that is beset by propaganda and fear.”
The government backtracked at the weekend on threats to forcibly remove migrants and refugees from Riace but now says it will starve the town of funding for its various migrant programmes, accusing the mayor of being responsible for “serious anomalies”.
The effect may be the same as forced removals, compelling families to move away from the town, located in the toe of the Italian boot.