Solidarity Sit-In

September 8 - Treviso Court Square

At 9.00 AM 


Lest we forget Mohammed, Amadou and Abdou, scapegoats for the failure of the Italian reception system for asylum seekers during the Covid pandemic


The three men face dozens of years of prison for a protest held in a former army base in Treviso, Italy, back in June 2020.


Mohammed Traore, Amadou Toure, and Abdourahmane Signate now aged respectively 27, 28, and 31 face up to 15 years of prison each for a protest held in June 2020 inside a former army base turned into a reception centre for asylum seekers, at the height of the Covid pandemic. 

Four people should have been on trial, but 23-year-old Chaka Ouattara committed suicide in November 2020 while in custody in Verona Prison. He had been detained without trial for nearly three months, under an unjust and punitive solitary confinement regime. 

The charges appear to be completely out of proportion when confronted with the context and the unfolding of events. The defendants are charged with kidnapping and conspiracy to ravage and pillage.

The final hearing will be held on the 8th September 2023. We wish to remember and tell a story too soon forgotten, in which the heavy-handed and repressive approach of Italian authorities has already led to the death in custody of a 23-years old man.



The reception centre


The place where the event took place is important in itself. We are in the Caserma Serena, a former army base in the outskirts of Treviso, a pretty Italian city twenty or so miles west of Venice. After years of abandon, in 2015 the base was converted in one of the largest reception centre for asylum seekers in the area, with a capacity of 437 beds. Management was assigned to a private contractor, Nova Facility, a company that up to that point had been active in just about any field but social services (it went from installing gas pipes and photovoltaic panels to selling real estate). 

Nova Facility was quick to step in the profitable business of reception for asylum seekers at a regional and national level. In 2020 took charge of the reception centre on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, one of the main landing site for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.


Over the years, the management of the often overcrowded centre  -- at one point the number of guests reached a critical figure of over 1000 people -- revealed an array of deficiencies, negligence and failures in terms of services offered (legal guidance, health care, meals, psychological support, Italian language classes and so on).

Several first-hand reports collected by not-for-profit organization Talking Hands at the end of 2016 illustrate the terrible living conditions within the centre. In March 2017 the asylum seekers themselves openly lamented the situation in a letter to the director of the facility: accommodations akin to prison cells, poor quality of the food, lack of adequate medical care and frequent episodes of intimidation by members of staff and police.

In an ironic turn of events, these facts were unintentionally confirmed by the Corte dei Conti, Italy’s national audit court, in a report titled The First Reception of Immigrants: the Management of the National Fund for Asylum Policies and Services (2013-2016). The official paper confirmed that some reception centres were overcrowded "such as the former Serena Army Base in Treviso (capacity 437, attendance 628)" and that "by choice of the management, the public tender was carried out using the method of the 'economically most advantageous' offer". The accountants happily reported that the management of the reception centres saved money by serving pre-packaged meals: "A saving of at least 7 euro per person, compared to the 35 euro recognized by the Ministry on a national basis".



The public health emergency


In 2020 Italy is swept by the Covid-19 pandemic. A national security bill previously signed by extreme right-wing minister of Interior Matteo Salvini "exacerbated the structural criticalities of the reception system" and "the failure of the management of the Coronavirus pandemic in health protection", as ONLUS Action Aid and Open Polis later noted in a report titled The System at a Crossroads:


"A failure foretold, that has led to the destruction of the reception system for migrant people. The tender specifications incentivize large reception centres at the expense of small and distributed ones, thus increasing, among other things, the risk of spreading of Covid-19." 


From north to south, the contagion spread faster in crowded and restrained places, and there were notable difficulties in implementing lockdown and quarantine procedures within the reception centres, where several hundred people lived in conditions decidedly unsuitable to restrain a pandemic, first and foremost because of shared bathrooms and showers. 

In addition to the purely sanitary aspect there were a few derivative problems, such as the practical and psychological repercussions of the pandemic on the already fragile daily existence of asylum seekers: from the need to isolate and provide for people in quarantine, to the bureaucratic difficulties for renewing residence permits, to relations between guests and staff.


The situation inside Caserma Serena is well explained by Fabrizio Urettini  who has directly experienced the state of bewilderment of many asylum seekers as a founder of Talking Hands, a permanent design and social innovation lab based in Treviso. Through Talking Hands refugees and asylum seekers work together with designers, photographers, teachers, journalists and volunteers, using design and manual activity to narrate their biographies and dreams, and undertake vocational training paths and establish relationships within the community in which they live. Established in 2016, in the midst of the European migrant humanitarian crisis, Talking Hands set out to provide an activity to asylum seekers in the area, most of them very young, and to create a bridge between the reception centres and the outside world.


"I remember that period very well because back in March 2020 we decided to convert production lines to manufacture washable protective masks, to raise awareness and contain the virus. The aim was to promote the use of protective masks to those part of the population who did not have a permanent home, who lived in shelters, and who were often not properly informed about the proper behaviours to have to face the health emergency. The project allowed us to continue the activities of the workshop and to keep a connection with Caserma Serena, where one of our collaborator lived.

"The whole centre laid in a state of abandon. Operators, cultural mediators and other members of staff stayed put and did not show up for work. Only the distribution of meals was guaranteed, which had been contracted to an external company. Whether due to language difficulties, or the physical inaccessibility of a place like a former army base, information on what was going on inside was scarce. The centre was practically self-managed by the guests, who in general adopted all the necessary measures to contrast and contain the spread of Covid-19. Like everybody in Italy, they could not go out to work. Note that for most migrants, the salary is the only lifeline that allows large families in their countries of origin to survive." 


Despite that dramatic situation, there was not a single case of Covid-19 inside the centre, proving that "self-management" was effective in applying prevention measures. There were some contacts between guests and the Treviso Antiracist Network; small food collections were organized and delivered at the gates of the centre. 

Thanks to the washable masks initiative, Talking Hands continued its activities, and volunteers of the group provided information to guests regarding fast-changing anti-Covid rules. Above all, it provided masks for the guests, in a very difficult period where masks were hard to find in the whole country.



The disputed facts


It is within this context of reception and emergency that the 11-12 June protest took place, at a time when the first national and very harsh lockdown (9 March - 18 May 2020) had just ended. 

Urettini remembers: 


"The guests were finally relaxing after almost two months of national restrictions and abandon by management. They were resuming normal activities. The novel opportunity to go out and work was experienced as an enormous relief after a extremely difficult period. They could resume helping their families at home, so they were considerably happy."


Suddenly the situation worsened:


"A member of staff of Pakistani origin tested positive to Covid-19. He had spent the lockdown in Pakistan and on return had been allowed to resume work without any precaution, such as a swab or a short quarantine period. He simply returned to work and live in the centre. 

Guests were not informed, probably to avoid widespread panic, but the gate of the centre was simply locked, and everybody was prevented from leaving without any explanation.”


Government and health authorities held a massive screening for all the guests in the centre. Throngs of armed policemen in riot gear were deployed to ensure nobody left the place. There was not a cultural mediator in sight. For two days in a row, guests met in the inner courtyard of the base, staging a peaceful protest and erecting rudimentary barricades to protect themselves from a possible violent attack by notoriously heavy-handed Italian riot police. 

Their initial request was to remove the sick worker from the centre, as they were afraid of catching Covid themselves, then they asked to be allowed to leave the centre to go to work, for fear of losing their jobs and no longer being able to support their families back home. 


What happened next has been reconstructed by researchers Omid Firouzi Tabar and Alessandro Maculan of the University of Padua, in an article titled The Lost Reception: chronicle of a suicide in the health emergency (published in the 17th Report on Detention Conditions by Associazione Antigone):


"When the situation settled down, health screenings were carried out and no further positive cases was found. However, we were only at the beginning of a very predictable crisis. On the 30th of July a new screening revealed 137 people positive to the infection, and on the 6th of August a new round of swabs raised the figure to 257, out of a total of 280 people tested, revealing the serious failure of the system for monitoring and containing Covid-19, and the absence of clear protocols by the managing body.” 


The decision to seal off the camp and lock everyone inside sparked a new protest. Guests criticized both living conditions and, more specifically, the management of the health crisis. It emerged that common spaces, such as kitchens, canteen and showers, had continued to be shared by people who tested negative, positive or that were awaiting results. No beds were moved and in general no measures were taken to separate people who tested positive to those who did not.


On the 19th of August, 4 asylum seekers were charged with kidnapping, devastation and looting in connection with the 11-12 June protest, and were arrested and detained in Treviso Prison. Their lawyers' request to revoke or at least mitigate the pre-trial detention measures were rejected, despite the defendants having no previous criminal record, as "the charges against them appeared to be of a high gravity and they did not demonstrate a propensity to abide by the law, despite the aid received by the government and the community" as a local paper noted.

This statement is in stark contrast with the direct experience of the guests of Caserma Serena. As we have seen, their stay was marked by neglect and confinement, in an overcrowded and decrepit army barracks. 


After two months in prison, the four defendants were placed under an harsh “special surveillance” regime for three months. 

The Treviso Solidarity Network commented on the consequences of that extremely punitive decision: 


"We are talking about a solitary confinement regime, to which only the most dangerous criminals are relegated. Solitary confinement is aimed at hindering the defendants' communications with their criminal organizations in the outside world. But in this case, the defendants are four young men not mafia bosses. Their only real crime, in the eyes of an increasingly fearful society unable to face reality, is that they are foreigners, black and immigrant”.


Months passed by, life went on, and Italian media conveniently forgot this sad story. The prisoners remained under an absurd and unjust isolation regime. Chaka Ouattara, the youngest of the four, could stand it no more. At the beginning of November, alone in his cell, he hanged himself. 

We spoke with those who knew him well. Chaka had been working for over a year for a well-known sandwich and grilled meat chain. He spoke Italian very well, and was full of life and eager to learn. He had many friends among colleagues, he loved music and dancing. Prison killed him, but before that, Caserma Serena killed him The big reception centre that was supposed to welcome him had become his grave. An Italian reception system that has neither logic nor mercy killed him. His death fills us with sadness and anger. His death has given us the strength and indignation to react and break the general indifference surrounding the case.

With similar charges, a "normal" citizen, i.e. with a home address, would be released pending trial and placed under house arrest. This did not happen for Chaka and his friends. 



The fate of other defendants. Will there ever be justice?


Abdourahmane Signate was released from prison on the 27th of November 2020, thanks to lawyer Giuseppe Romano and a network of volunteer supporters. Romano explains the situation in the light of the final hearing, scheduled for the 8th September 2023:


"During many hearings, and in numerous witness recollection, no one has ever been able to attribute a single violent behaviour to my defendant. And rightly so, since he – like all the other guests in the Caserma Serena – is a victim of injustice and not a perpetrator of crime. My defendant was arrested two months after the events, while working and living elsewhere. After a further two months, while in detention, by those mechanisms typical of a malevolent bureaucracy, he was transferred to Belluno and put in solitary confinement with no visitors allowed, in the very special cell created for mafia boss Raffaele Cutolo.

“The prison director had received a note stating that the defendant was among the organizers of a protest in a reception centre, i.e. he was certainly a very dangerous inmate to keep among others (despite having shown no dangerous behaviour in the preceding months in detention). Solitary confinement is particularly difficult to endure for a young man with no criminal record and at his first experience in prison. Rationality and hope were quick to vanish. When I did visit him in Belluno, I found him completely lost and absent-minded. At the same time, his co-defendant held in Verona Prison took his life. Hence the decision to activate a network of support and have someone provide an address for house arrest.”


The origins of the protest of the 11th of June  are entirely understandable, affirms Urettini, summoned as witness in the trial. The defendants had lost their job due to a negligence of the management of Caserma Serena, who had failed to test its employee returning from abroad and had kept him within the centre. 

The charges, that can sum up to 15 years of imprisonment, seem way out of proportion, considering that no one was assaulted or injured during the protest. The accusation of devastation and looting refers to the damaging of a few items present in a small room. Moreover, no direct witness or video footage on record has been able to attribute the responsibility for even the smallest of the damage to the four defendants, who have been arbitrarily defined “leaders” of a protest that has involved hundreds of people. 

These huge reception centres for asylum seekers are today at the centre of multiple judicial inquiries, and  several cases of mismanagement are finally emerging. For example, during the trial against the management of the Cona Reception Centre, one of the employees has candidly admitted under oath that the signatures of the guests (which formed the basis to receive public funds) were routinely forged. News of inspection visits were leaked days in advance to prevent troubles. On the other hand, visits by independent observers were continuously hindered. 


 Mohammed Traore was released from prison at the end of June 2021, thanks to the intervention of the legal representative of Mande Association of Naples, which promotes social inclusion. 

Traore is defended by lawyer Martina Pinciroli, who offers her insights: 


"At the end of May 2021 the defendant appointed me as his lawyer while he was still in prison. The first interviews were a failure because the man, who comes from Mali, speaks only his native dialect (bambara), and was helped only by men from English-speaking countries, such as Gambia and Nigeria. His cellmates confirmed his sense of bewilderment. The court papers served to him were all in Italian, and the hearings held up to that point had been conducted without the assistance of an interpreter.

Thanks to a network of volunteers, we found a very good cultural mediator who, at my request, was authorized to enter the prison and allowed me to hold a conversation with my client. I explained him the charges held against him, and asked him to reconstruct what happened in those days inside the Caserma Serena, and, in general. throughout the period of Covid restrictions and limitations.

We demonstrated to the court the lack of understanding of the documents hitherto served on him, not only in Italian but also in English and French, and managed to have them translated in bambara. In subsequent hearings, he will be assisted by an interpreter.

Mohammed is keen to follow the proceedings, although he lives in Naples, and thus faces a long journey each time to be present in court. He still does not understand why he has been imprisoned for almost a year, and placed under house arrest for another year, and is currently under an obligation to report to the police. Equally incomprehensible and unacceptable for him, is the prospect of returning to prison for a very long time if convicted.

The language issue is not a mere legal formality but, in our opinion, is at the very core of the facts, at least for a part of the guests of Caserma Serena, who had not been properly informed about the (disputable) need to lock the whole place down. Some of them, including Mohammed, did not understand the reasons for such a harsh decision, because the management did not have a sufficient number of cultural mediators in place, and those that were spoke only English or French.

The trial has found no violent conduct on the part of my client, and his role as “promoter” of the riot is inferred only from the fact that he allegedly communicated with fellow guests by waving his arms, a gesture that likened him to a “leader” in the eyes of some. These are, in fact, mere suppositions and extremely subjective perceptions by those who have examined video footage of the event, and not reports of eye-witnesses.

Mohammed explained that in those days he was extremely agitated and worried, because the lockdown of the centre prevented him from obtaining some medication he needed to take.

Some witnesses (on this point reports are contradictory) allegedly have seen him lock one of the gates with a bicycle chain, a circumstance Mohammed firmly denies.

We do not know how the trial will end, but the very fact that the last hearing will be held after more than 3 years from the event is a symptom of a justice system that does not work properly and of a national reception system that has certainly not improved even in the face of what happened."