Back to jail for Italian mobsters sent home over virus fears

ROME (AP) — Italian convicted mobsters who had been temporarily transferred from prison to house arrest for fear of coronavirus contagion are being brought back behind bars, the country’s justice minister said Thursday, after their release triggered heavy criticism.

Alfonso Bonafede has come under fire after more than 370 convicted mobsters and drug traffickers successfully argued they needed to be temporarily released to avoid becoming infected with the coronavirus in prison.

Corriere della Sera daily on Thursday reported that one of the first inmates returned to prison was a convicted Cosa Nostra boss, Antonio Sacco. He was one of a handful of top Mafiosi who won temporary release despite being incarcerated in a cell on his own under strict prison rules for mobsters, which also include extremely limited occasions to mingle with other inmates.

Responding to questions on Thursday from members of Chamber of Deputies’ Justice Commission, Bonafede confirmed that mobsters were being ordered back to prison. “The (administrative) machinery has started to review the health situation of those who asked to get out” of prison on grounds they were at risk of catching COVID-19, the minister said.

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Last month, opposition lawmakers demanded that the justice minister explain how a convicted organized crime boss was granted house arrest because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Pasquale Zagaria had been receiving cancer treatment at a hospital ward for prisoners on the island of Sardinia. But after the ward was converted to care for inmates with coronavirus infections, cancer treatment was no longer available there and so he was transferred to temporary house arrest.

His brother, Michele Zagaria, who is serving a life sentence on organized crime charges, was the reputed chieftain of the powerful Casalesi crime clan based in the southern city of Caserta and part of the Camorra crime syndicate.

Bonafede, from the populist 5-Star Movement, had ordered an administrative investigation into Pasquale Zagaria’s transfer.

Not all mobsters convinced judges to let their clients out of prison. A judge in Milan denied a bid by lawyers for convicted crime boss Nitto Santapaola. The court ruled that Santapaola, whose clan prosecutors have said dominated Cosa Nostra in Catania, Sicily, for decades, ran little risk for catching COVID-19, precisely because he is imprisoned under rigid rules for top Mafiosi.

But the release of other mobsters fueled calls from the political opposition for Bonafede to resign. When he didn’t, opposition lawmakers lodged a non-confidence motion against him in Parliament, with a vote on that motion likely later this month.

Early in Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, inmates in several jails and prisons rioted to protest overcrowded cells they said put them at high risk for contagion.

Italy’s prisons have been long criticized by justice advocates for chronic overcrowding.

Lawmaker Lucia Annibali urged Bonafede to devise a plan to relief overcrowding in the long-term.

The minister replied that “the situation of prisons has been grave for decades” in Italy. But he contended that the conditions weren’t such that many inmates needed to be released to house arrest during the pandemic.

Weeks ago, the government, stung by the uproar over the mobsters’ temporary transfer to their homes, ordered any such decision to be reviewed by Italy’s national anti-Mafia prosecutor.

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