An organisation based in New York called the Committee to Protect Journalists has sent a letter today to the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, complaining about alleged police intimidation and brutality against the Perugia-based blogger Frank Sfarzo.
I’ve got admiration for Frank and I read his blog. I definitely find the allegations in the letter a cause for concern. However, I also think there are reasons to be slightly sceptical about the notion of him as Perugia’s answer to Nelson Mandela.
One of the very modern features of the Meredith Kercher case is the way the Internet has been used as a forum for discussion, debate and even DIY investigation. Frank has been at the forefront of this right through the process, and has become an outspoken critic of the police and those associated with the prosecution. At times, he’s seemed like a one-man Wikileaks. Just a few days ago, for example, he uploaded a video to YouTube of his own cross-examination of one of the trial witnesses, Nara Capezzali.
That the police in Perugia find Frank irritating is more than plausible, and so it would not be surprising if the allegations, contained in the letter, that they make this clear to him when he attends court are substantially true.
The more serious claims in the letter are that Frank was hit by police outside the court in October 2008, that police have routinely tried to prevent him from entering the court, seizing and examining his mobile phone, and that, in September last year, he suffered what is depicted as quite heavy-handed treatment by police at his flat. They turned up there, perhaps to conduct a search (the letter is not clear), there was some sort of altercation, and the police have charge Frank on the basis that it was him that attacked them.
Obviously, if Frank has been subjected to any form of police brutality or intimidation then that is deplorable. At the moment, it seems to be his word against theirs. For me, the bigger question is what justification the police might claim they had for examining Frank’s phone and visiting him at his flat, assuming they agree that these things happened, and how reasonable this justification seems.
The letter makes reference to Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, authors of the book The Monster of Florence. They were indicted in 2006 by Giuliano Mignini, who is currently prosecuting the Kercher case. He accused them of conspiring to pervert the course of his investigation into a suicide. Spezi was convicted and went to prison, but was freed on appeal. Preston fled the country. (Preston seems fairly keen to get his own back on Mignini and, just by pure coincidence, he is a significant donor to the Committee to Protect Journalists).
There’s a fair bit of Internet he-said-she-said around all this, but the key question, I think, is whether Mignini had reasonable grounds for his indictment. If he did, all well and good. If he didn’t, then you have to wonder whether it was just a case of harassment.
The journalist Barbie Nadeau says in her book Angel Face that she has listened to a tape of a phone-tapped conversation between Preston and Spezi and that it does seem to her that they were talking about directing the police to faked evidence. I think that’s the key to the Preston-Spezi case.
In Frank’s case, I think the same applies. The whole thing turns on the question of why the police have treated him in the way that they have. But it’s a question that, for the time being, remains unexamined.
Note: There’s an update to this post here.