updated 2/17/2006 9:19:25 PM ET 2006-02-18T02:19:25

Italy's highest court ruled Friday that a man who raped the 14-year-old daughter of his girlfriend can seek to have his sentence reduced on mitigating circumstances that the girl was already sexually active, news reports said.

The ruling provoked outcry across Italy, was condemned by UNICEF and prompted other justices on the Court of Cassation to issue a statement saying the ruling was wrong and would only ever be cited as a bad example of a high court decision, the ANSA news agency reported.

The case concerns Marco T., who was convicted by a Cagliari, Sardinia, court in 2001 of sexual violence and threats against the 14-year-old daughter of his live-in girlfriend and sentenced to three years and four months in prison, ANSA said.

Cagliari judges refused his request to have the sentence reduced on mitigating circumstances that the crime was less serious because the girl had already had several sexual partners.

‘More developed than what one might normally expect’
However, Italy's high court said the Cagliari tribunal was wrong to reject the request and said the Cagliari judges should re-evaluate the decision because the girl "since the age of 13 had had many sexual relations with men of every age and it's right to assume that at the time of the encounter with the suspect her personality, from a sexual point of view, was much more developed than what one might normally expect from a girl of her age," ANSA said, citing the decision.

The head of UNICEF in Italy, Antonio Sclavi, said he was greatly concerned by the decision, which he said "seriously violates human rights and the dignity of a minor."

"We recall that as is confirmed by international law, there are no mitigating circumstances for sexual acts against a minor," he said in a statement. "We would have hoped that the battle in recent years for the respect of the rights of children would have made this point clear."

ANSA reported what it said was a statement from other high court judges saying the ruling would be "buried" and would only be cited "as a negative example of how a sentence should never be written or reasoned."

"Our jurisprudence is constant in the sense of giving the greatest protection to the victims of sexual violence, including in cases where the victims are prostitutes: This sentence is wrong," ANSA quoted the justices as saying.

Lower court urged to reaffirm sentence
The statement urged the Cagliari court to reaffirm its previous rejection to the suspect's petition for mitigating circumstances of the sentence.

Ministers and lawmakers from across Italy's political spectrum condemned the ruling.

"Not only does it diminish the objective value of the crime of rape, but it considers that women should be treated as merchandise, where you make a difference between new and used," Cabinet Minister Gianni Alemanno was quoted as saying by ANSA.

The suspect's lawyer, Andrea Biccheddu, defended the ruling, saying the episode between his client and the girl "didn't provoke any trauma," because the girl had had so many sexual partners. He said as a result, his client deserved to have his sentence reduced by two-thirds, the agency said.

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