Italy's government has defended plans to allow citizen patrols to beef up security, but said Monday that a right-wing guard that has caused outrage with Fascist and Nazi-like symbols on its uniforms will not be allowed to walk the streets.
The Italian National Guard was launched at a news conference over the weekend, sparking outcry from the center-left opposition, Jewish groups, police unions and others that it evoked Italy's fascist-era paramilitary Black Shirts.
Benito Mussolini's Black Shirts violently attacked communists, socialists and other progressive groups, breaking up strikes and attacking trade union headquarters. Their 1922 march on Rome brought the fascist dictator to power.
The Italian National Guard uniforms feature an imperial eagle, a symbol often associated with Fascism. In addition, on the armband is a black-rayed sun, or Sonnenrad, an image found in a castle used by the Nazi's paramilitary SS.
Guard welcomed with Fascist salute
The guard was introduced by the right-wing fringe Italian Social Movement at a Milan party conference during which at least two speakers gave the straight-armed Fascist salute.
On Monday, Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said the group had essentially disqualified itself by staging its weekend launch, calling the stunt "ridiculous and dangerous."
However, government officials said they would go ahead with legislation allowing unarmed citizen patrols to help beef up security in Italian cities and towns. The plan is part of a crackdown by the conservative administration on illegal immigration, which Italians increasingly link to crime.
Leaders of the Italian Social Movement said the guard's creation was made possible by the bill, which must still to be approved by the Senate, leading the center-left opposition to say the case highlighted the danger posed by the plan.
Premier fights illegal immigration
Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government has made the fight against illegal immigration a priority, recently signing a controversial new accord with Libya to send back migrants intercepted at sea in a bid to stem the flow of thousands of would-be migrants who set sail for Italian shores from Libya each year.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, of the anti-immigrant Northern League, defended the planned legislation Monday but insisted that such "do-it-yourself" groups wouldn't be permitted once the bill becomes law.
"There is a clear and precise process" for citizen patrols to be registered with local government prefects, he told private Radio 24. "All the rest is either folklore or political maneuvering."
Maroni, however, has long been a fan of such local citizen patrols. In 1996, he inaugurated a regional security force backed by the Northern League, the Padania National Guard. Those so-called "green shirts" are the model for the new Italian National Guard, organizers said.
'We aren't Fascists'
The Italian National Guard says it is a nonprofit, apolitical organization of volunteers. However, its president is Gaetano Saya, who also is leader of the Italian Socialist Movement, and the guard was introduced at the party's general conference, complete with a uniformed officer.
In a video message on the guard's Web site, Saya says he is just a patriotic Italian — not a Fascist. He lambasted a reported investigation by Milan prosecutors into alleged violations of a law that makes it a crime to apologize for fascism.
"We aren't Black Shirts, we aren't Fascists, we aren't Nazis," he said. "We are Italian patriots and we want freedom."
Organizers also have defended the use of the eagle on the uniforms, saying it stems from Rome's imperial, ancient past — not its Fascist one.
The opposition, which has denounced the citizen patrols as paving the way for vigilante justice, said the new guard clearly evoked fascist and Nazi paramilitary groups.
"The idea that security could be granted to militant groups that are identified with a political group is a strike to the heart of the principles of every free democracy," the ANSA news agency quoted Marco Minniti, head of security matters for the main opposition Democratic Party, as saying.
The police union Sil-Cigl said such patrols not only wouldn't help improve security but also would increase problems by creating confusion, Apcom news agency said. And Jewish groups said they were prepared to create "counter-patrols" to ensure such security forces don't commit any crimes themselves.