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On Italy's passionate opposition to death penalty

Gayle Young By Gayle Young
CNN Rome Bureau Chief

February 24, 2000
Web posted at: 12:14 p.m. EST (1714 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

Rome's ancient Coliseum has become a focal point for death penalty protests  

In this story:

A Gordian knot for knitwear company?

Soft on criminals?

ROME (CNN) -- Rome's famous Coliseum, where doomed captives were once tortured and slaughtered for the amusement of the populace, is now becoming a symbol of modern-day Italy's virulent hatred of capital punishment.

Usually the postcard-pretty amphitheater with an ugly past is bathed in cold white lights during hours of darkness. But whenever a death sentence is commuted anywhere in the world, the city authorities switch the lights to gold in tribute.

Recently, Bermuda passed a law banning the death penalty. So on a cold rainy night, a small crowd gathered at the base of the Coliseum's crumbling porticos to hold a candlelight vigil under the golden glow.

Elizabetta Zanparutti explained why she and her fellow protesters were standing in freezing rain because of what was going on in a small island nation half a world away.

"I am not living only in Italy," Zanparutti said. "We are moving toward a global community and we should reach a common standard on certain principles, such as human rights."

  • y: Death penalty dilemma: Executing the innocent?

    A Gordian knot for knitwear company?

    Italy banned capital punishment in 1948 and is a leading voice in an international movement to eliminate executions worldwide in the year 2000.

    Some observers believe the Roman Catholic Church, whose headquarters at the Vatican dominates Rome, fosters Italy's sense of moral obligation. Pope John Paul II repeatedly speaks out against executions and has been known to fire off appeals for clemency to world leaders and U.S. governors.

    Benetton billboards in Italy  

    It's not unusual for Italians to take to the streets to protest high-profile cases in other countries. The lethal injection of murderer Karla Faye Tucker in Texas two years ago elicited howls of indignation throughout the European country, and Italian news media followed every breathless detail of her final hours.

    In recent weeks, the United States has discovered just how deep this passion runs when the Italian clothing chain Benetton launched a worldwide advertising campaign featuring pictures of 26 U.S. death row inmates, shot in flattering light by a renowned fashion photographer. Accompanying texts include interviews with these condemned prisoners, who are asked to muse on their childhood memories and their opinions on societal ills.

    Advocates of the death penalty and of victims' rights are among those upset that the sportswear ads never mention the crimes that put the prisoners on death row in the first place.

    For example, Jeremy Sheets, on death row in Nebraska, is one of those featured in the ads, saying parents should spend more time with their children. But nowhere does the ad mention Sheets was convicted of kidnapping, rape and murder in the death of an honor student in Omaha in 1992.

    But Benetton's creative director and the campaign's photographer, Oliviero Toscani, defends his campaign. To him, execution compounds the injustice of the original crime.

    Soft on criminals?

    Italians show a sympathy for convicted criminals that may strike some in the international community as extraordinarily and even excessively lenient.

    Prison sentences of less than two years are routinely commuted.

    An ex-premier, Silvio Berlusconi, is still a member of Parliament and serves as opposition leader, although he's been convicted of fraud and tax evasion, and cases involving him are still active in the courts.

    Mafia informers, even those guilty of multiple murders, are given new identities, jobs and housing.

    And many elderly and infirm convicts, including convicted Nazi war criminal Eric Priebke, serve time in the confines and comforts of their own homes.

    Times have changed since the Coliseum was built in the 1st century. Back then, Romans readily executed slaves, captives and prisoners there while spectators cheered.

    For many Italians today, the Coliseum should be seen as an international reminder that the "thou" in the biblical commandment "Thou shall not kill" refers to states, as well as individuals.

    CNN Interactive: Analysis

      • More news analysis by CNN's Gayle Young

    Vatican: The Holy See
    Embassy of Italy in the United States

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