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Mired in financial troubles, Italian couple commits suicide

By Livia Borghese. Greg Botelho and Pierre Meilhan, CNN
April 6, 2013 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "They were people with great dignity," says a friend of the couple
  • Financial problems drive couple to hang themselves, police say
  • Woman's brother hurls himself into sea upon learning of deaths
  • Tragedy illustrates "shame of poverty," a national politician says

Rome (CNN) -- He was a clerk at a shoe company, though he hadn't worked for some time. She was a retired artisan. Together, they had no more than 500 euros a month, from her pension, to live on.

On Friday, they were dead.

In Italy, a country in a deep economic malaise and political disarray, there's no shortage of people struggling nowadays. Even so, the suicides of Romeo Dionisi, 62, and Anna Maria Sopranzi, 68, struck a nerve -- triggering an outpouring of disbelief and sorrow not only in their seaside eastern Italian community, but around the nation.

Adding to the shock, Sopranzi's elderly brother threw himself into the Adriatic Sea soon after the news broke about his sister.

"The tragedy of Civitanova Marche leaves (me) shocked and speechless," said Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the center-left Democratic Party that narrowly won the most votes in February's election. "We all have to convince ourselves that, out of the spotlight, there is a real and dramatic social emergency."

Dionisi and Sopranzi lived in an apartment in the same building as Ivo Costamagna, the president of Civitanova Marche's municipal council, and he had come to know them well over the decades.

"They were people with great dignity," Costamagna told CNN in a phone interview.

He has no doubt that they took their own lives because of their economic difficulties.

Both Romeo and his brother-in-law worked in town's construction and footwear industries, Costamagna said.

Those sectors, he said, have been badly hit by the crisis. In Civitanova Marche, a traditionally wealthy town, the economic crunch has had a tremendous psychological impact.

"People like Romeo would not accept charity, or social service aid," Costamagna said. "Romeo just wanted a job."

Their garage door open, the couple had left a note asking forgiveness and directing people to a room in the back of their building, ANSA reported. That is where they were found, having hung themselves.

"They couldn't even pay the rent," neighbors said, according to Italian news agency ANSA.

Police told reporters there was "no doubt" Dionisi and Sopranzi committed suicide out of desperation.

While their act appeared to be premeditated, the apparent suicide of Sopranzi's brother, Giuseppe, seems to have been an impulse driven by his grief.

The funerals are due to take place on Saturday afternoon. Laura Boldrini, the speaker of Italy's lower house of parliament, is attending privately.

Saddled with debt

As Italy's economy continues to stagger, suicide rates have increased in recent years, according to the state news agency.

The nation is in its longest recession in 20 years. Its economy -- Europe's third-largest, saddled with a government debt the Treasury Ministry puts at $2.6 trillion -- shrank by 0.9% in the fourth quarter of 2012, Eurobarometer says.

Efforts to corral Italy's government debt through cutbacks have taken a toll. Dionisi, for instance, was among the thousands of esodati -- or "exiled ones" -- who'd been left without a pension after the Italian government raised the retirement age 16 months ago.

"When Romeo lost his job (in a building firm) he had only one or two more years of private contribution to pay before he could receive the pension," Costamagna said.

"With the pension system reform, he suddenly had five more years of contribution to pay and he lost his serenity. Moreover, according to the new rules it's very difficult to pay your contributions if you don't have a proper work and with the crisis, no one can afford to hire a worker with a proper contract.

"It's a kind of pincer in which Romeo got trapped."

Political instability in the south European country has compounded the economic woes. Bersani has been unable to form a coalition government, leaving Italy in a limbo that prompted international ratings agency Fitch downgrade its credit rating from A- to BBB+.

The suicides Friday echoed the price this malaise has taken on Italian citizens. Boldrini said on her website that the married couple's deaths illustrate "the despair of many, due to the shame of poverty."

The deaths struck closest to home in Civitanova Marche. Mayor Tommaso Claudio Corvatta declared Saturday a day of mourning for the three apparent suicide victims, saying on his website their deaths are impacting "the community in a time of particular economic and social difficulties."

Antonella Sgavo, a city official in Civitanova Marche, told ANSA that the stories of those three killed are not unique. For that reason, she said, it is crucial that the community keep their eyes open to such everyday struggles and reach out to those in need.

"We need to pay, more than ever, ... greater attention to new forms of poverty that affect many families (living) next door, when we do not realize it," said Sgavo.

CNN's Livia Borghese reported from Rome, and Greg Botelho and Pierre Meilhan from Atlanta.

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