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Italy: Weapons Violation Case Raises Religious Freedom and Assimilation Issues

(June 13, 2017) On March 31, 2017, the Supreme Court of Italy (Corte di Cassazione), in affirming a lower court conviction of an immigrant charged with a weapons violation he carried for religious reasons, issued a decision declaring that immigrants who have chosen to live in the Western world have the “obligation to conform themselves to the values of the society in which they have decided to settle.” (Sentenza. Cassazione: “I migranti devono conformarsi ai valori del Paese dove vivono [Decision. Cassation: “Migrants Must Conform to the Values of the Country in Which They Live”], AVVENIRE.IT (May 15, 2017); Corte di Cassazione, Criminal Chamber, Section One, Decision No. 24,084, ITALGIUREWEB (Ministry of Justice website) (in Italian).)


On February 5, 2015, a court in the city of Mantua, Lombardy province, Italy, convicted an Indian citizen of violation of the law on control of weapons and ordered him to pay a fine. (Law No. 110 of April 18, 1975, on the Control of Weapons, Ammunitions, and Explosives, GAZZETTA UFFICIALE No. 105 (Apr. 21, 1975), NORMATTIVA (in Italian).) The conviction was based in particular on article 4 of the Law, which provides:

Unless there is a justification, no one may keep in his dwelling or among his belongs any sticks with pointed tips, punching or cutting tools, maces, tubes, chains, slings, bolts, metal spheres, or any other kind of instrument that although not a recognized sharp or sharp weapon could still be used in some circumstances to injure a person.  (Id.)

On March 6, 2013, the defendant had been found by police to be carrying a knife 18.5 centimeters long hanging from his waist. As a defense, the accused argued that his behavior comported with the practice of his Sikh religion and was therefore protected by article 19 of the Italian Constitution.  (Decision No. 24,084, Factual Background, No. 2 ¶ 1.) Article 19 establishes that “[a]nyone is entitled to freely profess their religious belief in any form, individually or with others, and to promote them and celebrate rites in public or in private, provided they are not offensive to public morality.” (Constitution of the Italian Republic, Italian Senate website (last visited June 5, 2017).) According to the Mantua court, however, the religious practices of the defendant were protected by the Italian Constitution only as customary practices attached to his culture of origin, but could not have the effect of abrogating a criminal provision issued with a view to meeting public security objectives. (Decision, Factual Background, No. 2 ¶ 2.)

Legal Reasoning of the Supreme Court

The criminal defendant brought his case to the Italian Supreme Court, which eventually affirmed the Mantua court decision. The Supreme Court reasoned that the crime under review was excusable when “a justifiable reason” for violation of the Law was present.  To determine whether there was a justifiable reason, the Court considered multiple criteria, including the nature of the instrument, the manner in which the events took place, the subjective conditions of the defendant, the place of the events, and the normal uses of the weapon.  (Decision, Legal Background, No. 2 ¶ 1.)  The Court held that the legal prohibition against carrying weapons in public places established under Law No. 110 of 1975 did not have a discriminatory effect.  (Id. No. 2 ¶ 2.2.)  Specifically, the Court held that in a multi-ethnic society such as Italy’s social life “necessarily requires the identification of a common nucleus that must be recognized by immigrants and the society that welcomes them.”  (Id. No. 2 ¶ 2.3.)

The Court added that integration does not impose requirement of abandonment of the culture of origin, but that respect for human rights and legal civility in the host society are paramount for the survival of the practice of that culture of origin in the new domain. (Id.) Hence, the Court reasoned, it is an essential obligation of the immigrant to bring his own values into conformity with the values of the Western society which he has freely chosen to join, and to check beforehand the compatibility of his own behavior with the principles that regulate the society that welcomes him, and consequently, to assess the legality of his actions according to the legal system in which he has chosen to live. (Id.) The decision to settle in a society where it is known that the governing values are different from those of the country of origin imposes on newcomers the duty of respect for the new values, the Court held, and it is not tolerable that the attachment to the immigrant’s own values, however valid they might be in the country of origin, would lead to the conscious violation of the values of the welcoming society. (Id.) A multi-ethnic society is a necessity, the Court stated, but it may not cause the formation of conflicting “cultural archipelagos” according to the different ethnicities that compose it; otherwise, conscious violation of the unity of the cultural and legal fabric of the country, which recognizes public security as a protected value, would occur. (Id.)

The Court also held hat the Law concerned imposes no obstacles to the exercise of religious freedom or the observance of rituals that are not contrary to accepted customs based on the law of the hosting society. (Id. No. 2 ¶ 2.4.) In addition, the Court pointed out that the exercise of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion established in article 19 of the Constitution is limited by the formulation of the notions of “public order” and “peaceful social life” at which the provisions of Law No. 110 of 1975 are aimed. (Id.) Finally, as a basis for its decision, the Court also mentioned the European Convention of Human Rights and jurisprudence of the European Union Court of Human Rights. (Id. No. 2 ¶¶ 2.5 & 2.6; Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Nov. 4, 1950, as amended by Protocols), European Convention on Human Rights website.)