Lucano was hailed as a visionary for using integration as a motor for revitalizing his dying Italian village | Photo: picture alliance/dpa/A. Burgi
Lucano was hailed as a visionary for using integration as a motor for revitalizing his dying Italian village | Photo: picture alliance/dpa/A. Burgi

A southern Italian mayor lauded globally for his approach to immigration was convicted on various corruption charges. Observers were shocked at the severity of the sentence.

Domenico "Mimmo" Lucano, the 63-year-old former mayor of the village of Riace in Calabria, Italy, was sentenced to 13 years and two months in prison Thursday for crimes including conspiracy, abuse of office, fraud, extortion, embezzlement and abetting illegal immigration.

Lucano, a human rights activist, served as mayor of Riace from 2004 to 2018. During the so-called European migrant crisis, he was hailed globally for his work integrating hundreds of refugees into the dwindling village of 1,800 residents. These were often given jobs as municipal employees.

The approach drew praise from the likes of Fortune magazine, which named him one of the world's most influential political leaders in 2016, and the German city of Dresden, which awarded him its international peace prize in 2017.

Despite prosecutors having called for the court to sentence Lucano to seven years and 11 month, the court, which found him guilty on all counts, sentenced him to nearly twice that. His lawyers, who said that the case was not politically motivated, nevertheless called the sentence "exorbitant … totally incomprehensible and unjustified."

The defense team told reporters that their client "has always been committed to his community and to the welcoming and integrating of children, women and men fleeing war, torture and hunger."

Lucano, who claims innocence, received a sentence that supporters and human rights groups called 'scandalous' | Photo: Italy Photo Press/imago images
Lucano, who claims innocence, received a sentence that supporters and human rights groups called 'scandalous' | Photo: Italy Photo Press/imago images

'Stained for life for wrongs I didn't commit'

Lucano has denied any wrongdoing and vowed to appeal the verdict and the sentence, saying "I will be stained for life for wrongs I didn't commit." He bemoaned the fact that mafia criminals get lighter sentences than he, who "spent my life chasing anti-Mafia ideals. I became mayor, I sided with the least fortunate, with the refugees."

His approach to integration, which was financed with Italian and EU funds and became known as the "Riace model," is credited with revitalizing the village, which attracted tourists by renovating houses and installing crafts workshops in structures that had once been abandoned.  

The mayor became the target of a police investigation in 2016, for supposed irregularities related to migrant visas. He was then put under house arrest in October 2018 for organizing "marriages of convenience" between Italian men and migrant women as a way to secure the women permanent residency in the EU.

In his sentencing Thursday in the Calabrian city of Locri, Lucano was also ordered to repay some €500,000 ($579,000) in EU funds, according to Italian media outlets.

Human rights groups decried the verdict as "shameful," and "the gravest attack on the culture and practice of solidarity in our country." The refugee rescue group Sea Watch Italy said: "The former mayor of Riace gave life and future to his city through welcome and solidarity. We are at the side of Mimmo Lucano and whoever practices solidarity every day."

Lucano will remain under house arrest while awaiting a verdict on his appeal.

js/aw (AFP, AP, KNA)

First published: September 30, 2021

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