Dead Letter Syndrome: Equality Before the Law

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi – the cavaliere – has been successful in fighting off legal challenges ranging from sex with minors to alleged tax fraud involving humungous amounts for well over a decade. On a number of occasions, the Italian State even created new laws specifically designed to keep the cavaliere out of jail.


berlusconi sbFormer Italian emperor, the irrepressible and highly entertaining cavaliere.

Image by Steve Bell


We admittedly just loved his constant successful evasions of justice. First of all, we were deeply worried by the thought of potentially losing this unsurpassed master of political entertainment. Secondly, when the Eurocracy decided it didn’t like him anymore, he was basically putsched out of office, and we greatly dislike the meddlers administering the Moloch in Brussels. Incidentally, ever since he has lost political power, Berlusconi’s successes in evading justice have been waning rather rapidly.

What was of course also great about Berlusconi’s brushes with the law was that they demonstrated unequivocally that the concept of “equality before the law” is a basically a bad joke. They showed the hoi-polloi that the modern-day rulers of the “democratic” societies of the West are in many respects really not much different from the feudal robber barons of the past. This seemed eminently useful from an educational perspective to us.


bunga-bungaThe eurocrats didn’t like Uncle Silvio, and that was all she wrote.

Cartoon by Chappate


Sending a Message to Dangerous Critics of the Establishment

This week we have been provided with yet another interesting demonstration by Italy’s justice system. An oppositional critic of the establishment who is seen as a genuine danger to the “European project” and the structures of the State because he enjoys massive voter support can evidently not hope to evade the long arm of the law as easily as the cavaliere was able to do in his heyday.


Beppe-Grillo--008Beppe Grillo, comedian-turned-politician, whose success reflects the frustration of Italian voters with business as usual

Photo credit: Reuters


Beppe Grillo, leader of the wildly successful “5 Star Movement” has been handed a one year jail sentence (suspended, but still – one more misstep, and he’s locked up) and has been ordered to pay altogether 51,250 euro in fines and restitution. What was his crime? Did he defraud the tax man? Did he engage in bunga-bunga with minors? Did he have truck with the mafia? Nope – his alleged crime is defamation – and it appears that the law’s definition of “defamation” is “saying something about a public personality that said person doesn’t like”.

Here is what happened, according to the press:


“Ascoli Piceno, September 14 – A judge here handed a suspended sentence of one year to 5-Star Movement (M5S) leader Beppe Grillo on Monday, for defamation of university professor Franco Battaglia.

Grillo publicly insulted Battaglia during a speech on nuclear energy in May 2011 in the town of San Benedetto del Tronto, over an appearance Battaglia had made on the TV program Anno Zero.

Referring to Battaglia’s comments, Grillo said, “You can’t let an engineer (…) go on television and say, with nonchalance, that no one died in Chernobyl. I’ll kick your ass, I’ll throw you out of television, I’ll report you to the police and send you to jail”.

Battaglia testified that his car was also vandalized and he received a “strange phone call” prior to the act of vandalism. Grillo was ordered to pay a fine of 1,250 euros, and Battaglia was awarded compensation of 50,000 euros.


(emphasis added)

It is well known that Beppe Grillo doesn’t mince words, but we can be reasonably sure that he was neither the man behind the “strange phone call” (we only have Battaglia’s say-so regarding this call), and that he probably didn’t vandalize the good professor’s car either. Most press reports didn’t go into too many details though – after all, Grillo had it coming, right?


battagliaControversy-inducing professor: Franco Battaglia

Screenshot: RAI2


A Controversial Opinion

Mr. Battaglia seems to be widely regarded as a shill for the nuclear industry. The latter has suffered a rather sound defeat in Italy. In a referendum held in 2011, an almost Stalinesque 94.5% of voters voted for the renunciation of nuclear power in Italy – n.b., against the government’s wishes. Assuming that Stalin’s minions weren’t involved in counting the votes, this was a pretty strong message. It may have been an ill-considered decision so shortly after the Fukujima disaster, but the fact remains that Italians have made it crystal clear they don’t want any more nuclear power stations.

Mr. Battaglia disagrees rather vehemently with this. It seems actually that the bone of contention at the trial was not primarily Grillo’s colorful “I’ll kick your ass” threat. It was his assertion that Battaglia revealed himself as an unqualified shill by saying that “no-one died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster”. Here is an excerpt of an article Battaglia wrote for Il Giornale:


“Ma anche a Chernobyl la radioattività ha causato alla popolazione civile, in questi 25 anni, zero morti, zero feriti e zero malati. Zero.” 


“But even at Chernobyl, radioactivity caused in these 25 years, zero deaths, zero injuries and zero patients in the civilian population. Zero.”


Here is an appearance by Battaglia in a debate on Italian TV, in which he reiterates his view that “Chernobyl’s reported health effects are nothing but a big media hoax”.


Professor Battaglia in a TV debate on Italian TV – according to him, Chernobyl wasn’t detrimental to anyone’s health. Oh well.


If one looks at assorted Chernobyl documentaries on you-tube, it is fair to say that this is a pretty lonely opinion. Most of them allege that thousands of people are to this day suffering from radiation-induced long term effects as a result of the disaster. We have to admit that we are actually quite wary of such uniform media assaults. In other words, we harbor some sympathy for people like Mr. Battaglia who dare to challenge the conventional wisdom. For all we know, he may actually be right. Admittedly, we actually don’t know.

Our personal and scientifically uninformed view has always been that nuclear power seems on the whole a fairly safe and clean power generation option, albeit one burdened with a rather significant drawback. The drawback is that while it appears quite safe from a statistical perspective, a single accident can potentially have such enormous repercussions that it may be a tail risk not worth taking.


pripyat-chernobylThe ghost town of Pripyat, in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. One fine morning, everybody was evacuated – people only had a few hours to pack their bags. This was in 1986. No-one has been able to return.

Photo via


However, that particular debate is not really the point of this post. The point is the treatment meted out to Mr. Grillo. A public personality like professor Battaglia, who confronts the world with what are widely considered quite controversial assertions simply has to be prepared to face harsh criticism. It comes with the territory; whether he is or isn’t correct is actually not the issue here.

Many people, including evidently Beppe Grillo, think the professor’s assertions are an example of exceptionally bad taste. He must expect them to denounce him in no uncertain terms. In short, he shouldn’t have entered the kitchen if he can’t take the heat.


Politically Motivated Sentence?

What is particularly noteworthy though is that according to several press reports, the prosecution actually asked “only” for a fine of 6,000 euro. It was the judge who unilaterally transformed this request into a suspended one year jail sentence and fines of more than 50,000 euro in total.

Naturally one has to wonder what precisely motivated this decision. Would anyone other than Beppe Grillo have faced such a harsh verdict? We rather doubt it. Consider our brief summary of Mr. Berlusconi’s brushes with the law mentioned above. As long as he was an approved member of the political establishment, Berlusconi could do whatever he liked – he never had to fear legal consequences.

Mr. Grillo by contrast is clearly considered an enemy of the establishment. It seems he cannot even sound off against someone whose opinions he detests without running the risk of being taught a rather harsh lesson. Grillo is now in danger of actually being sent to jail if he merely “defames” one more person. We’re pretty sure Italy’s political establishment would be elated if it could shut up Grillo by throwing him into the slammer.


send-in-the-clownsThe cover of the “Economist” is always a good source for finding out who is or isn’t meeting with establishment approval.



European politicians challenging the status quo seem to be living dangerously. They either get blackmailed and/or bought off (Tsipras), or they become victims of a quasi coup d’etat (Papandreou, Berlusconi), or they get excluded from their party for suddenly being deemed too “politically incorrect” (Godfrey Bloom).

As this latest twist shows, they even risk getting thrown into jail on the flimsiest of pretexts. There is one good thing about this though: it indicates that the establishment must really be running scared by now. If so, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.




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