Italy has introduced harsher penalties for rape and other sex crimes. Some say the measures, which also include the creation of civilian anti-crime patrols and longer detention for illegal immigrants, target foreigners.
For serious sex crimes, the automatic penalty is now life in prison
The measures contained in a decree approved by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet on Friday, Feb. 20, come in the wake of several widely publicized rape cases, including three last weekend in Rome, Milan and Bologna.
They also follow rioting by Tunisian would-be immigrants protesting their repatriation from a detention center on the island in Lampedusa.
"The government is not acting on a wave of emotion," Berlusconi, who has taken a hard line against illegal immigration, told reporters. He said his cabinet was working to keep the center-right's April 2008 election promise to combat crime and curb illegal immigration.
Rape cases declined 10 percent in 2008, compared to the 2006-2007 period when Italy was governed by the center-left, Berlusconi said.
Criticism of "xenophobic" attitudes
Riots broke out in Lampedusa at the end of January
Romanian rights groups, however, on Friday issued a joint statement condemning recent "xenophobic attitudes and attacks" in Italy after a series of rapes were blamed on immigrants.
Earlier this week, four Romanians were attacked by masked assailants in a Rome restaurant, supposedly in response to allegations that the sex crimes had been committed by eastern European and northern African men.
In January, six Romanian men were convicted of arrested in the gang-rape of a woman.
Mandatory life sentences
The Italian decree, which goes into effect immediately but still has to be approved by both houses of parliament within 60 days, introduces mandatory life sentences for people convicted of gang-rape, sexual assault resulting in murder and violent sexual abuse of children.
Those charged with such crimes, as well as suspects "caught in the act" for child prostitution, child pornography and sex tourism crimes committed abroad, will also be kept in jail while awaiting trial, according to the decree.
Recent decisions by magistrates to issue house arrest instead of prison orders to several rape suspects have triggered public outcry in Italy.
Civilian anti-crime patrols
The decree also contains a controversial clause allowing mayors to recruit civilians to conduct anti-crime patrols in towns and city.
Italy's opposition says the measure could lead civilians to take the law into their own hands and make them more likely to target immigrants.
Berlusconi's election promises to fight crime and illegal immigration helped him to victory
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni denied this, saying the patrols would ideally consist of retired policemen, off-duty soldiers and fire fighters.
"They will not carry weapons and will only be equipped with radio transmitters or mobile phones to alert police," he said.
Longer detention for immigrants
Furthermore, the decree approved Friday increases from two to six months the period in which would-be immigrants may be held in detention centers.
Maroni said that this would allow for their proper identification and for arranging their repatriation with the authorities of their countries of origin.
Human rights activists, the Roman Catholic Church and much of Italy's opposition have said this will lead to overcrowding at the detention centers and that health and security risks will result.
Maroni said the government plans to convert former army barracks into detention centers for illegal immigrants and make use of other structures that are located "away from urban centers and preferably close to airports," in order to "ease swift repatriation."