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Bruises of Genoa

by Paul Harris, Nick Paton Walsh, Martin Bright Thursday, Aug. 02, 2001 at 4:13 PM
The Observer

The riots on the streets of Genoa last week were the worst violence seen in Europe for decades. But the secret 'torture' of Britons in police cells was even more horrific. The truth is finally emerging.

The police were tidying up. As cafe owners opened up and street cleaners swept away the rubble from the day's rioting, the officers deployed to deal with the riots at the G8 summit last week set to work.

A squad jogged down Cesari Battisti Street, battering anyone in their path. They then headed for a school where Norman Blair, a 38-year-old Londoner, and other anti-capitalist demonstrators were staying. It was just after midnight. The police did not knock. It was payback time.

They rammed the gates to the school with an armored car. The first in the line of fire was Mark Covell, 33, a journalist covering the summit. He was outside the building when he saw the police coming. He tried to run, but he did not stand a chance.

'I heard my ribs break, like snapping match ticks. I thought, my God, this is it, I'm going to die,' he said. Splinters of rib punctured his left lung; 10 teeth fell from his mouth. Blood obscured Covell's view as the police charged past him and he collapsed. 'The last thing I heard was a lot of screaming. Then I lost consciousness.'

Covell's ordeal was the first of many. Richard Moth and Nicola Doherty, two London-based care workers, had just returned to the school when the violence began. The building had been converted into a dormitory for the duration of the G8 summit by the Genoa Social Forum, one of the main organizations behind the protests.

The pair zipped their sleeping bags together, and decided to bed down. As Richard, 32, returned from the bathroom he heard the commotion erupt. He and Nicola followed fellow protesters running up some stairs. But it was too late. The police were already inside.

The pair crouched on the floor; Richard held his body over Nicola to protect her 'All I could hear was blow after blow,' said Nicola. 'I was hit everywhere,' added Richard, 'I can't remember where, it was all such a blur.'

'Richard's blood began to drip onto me,' said Nicola. 'I could hear the man next to me cry "Please stop".'

A second wave of police came. One officer took out a knife. 'He held it against the face of the man next to me and cut off his hair,' said Nicola. "Then he held it to my face. I closed my eyes. I don't know if he cut off my hair or not. Another policeman came along and hit my back. He leaned forwards, stroked my arm, and said "Aaah", in mock sympathy.'

Police officers rained down blows on the terrified protesters as they were herded into the main school hall. 'You could feel the hatred and the venom in them,' said Norman Blair, his eyes filling with tears of anger as he told how he and his friend Dan McQuillan were beaten to a pulp by the Italian police in Genoa last Saturday night. 'The blood was coming out of Dan in big dollops, like jelly. It was just horrible.'

Then they were made to kneel, hands stretched out, as their blood formed pools around them. Petrified paramedics quickly ran out of the most basic materials for the injured. Ambulance staff were forced to make splints from cardboard boxes. Makeshift stretchers made from sleeping bags and mats were used to drag the unconscious out into the street. One policeofficer, concerned that at least two people seemed to be in a coma, was allegedly reassured by a superior: 'Don't worry, we're covered.'

But the most chilling part of the demonstrators' ordeal was yet to come. The protesters were loaded into prison vans and taken to the Bolzaneto detention centre. Norman called it 'the sort of place where you know terrible things happen'.

Terrible things did happen. The psychological abuse began. Prisoners, including those with broken limbs, were spread-eagled against a wall for up to two hours while abuse was hurled at them. Prisoners were spat on, urinated on and not allowed to go to the toilet. Some were made to sing fascist songs.

'I could hear people screaming and one woman saying "Please help me, please help me" over and over again,' said Norman.

Then, one by one the prisoners were asked, in broken English: 'Who is your government?' Norman thought they meant what nationality he was, but then he noticed the replies of the others. Taking his cue from his neighbour, he answered in Italian: 'Polizia'. Anything else would almost certainly have meant another beating.

For 24 hours the prisoners were kept awake by the police shouting at them or forcing them to stand. Some began hallucinating from lack of sleep and food. Richard described how one German protester had his clothes confiscated and was made to sit, naked except for a plastic apron.

'When we wanted to go to the toilet, we had to wait. Then they would take us, our heads bowed down, and we would be led by the hair. We would have to walk past rows of police saying things like: "Auschwitz" and "Swastika". I passed one cell whose door window had been covered up with a blanket,' he said.

Nicola saw similar mistreatment. 'Women had their hair cut off. The guards seemed to think they would hang themselves with it. One Kurdish girl had been tortured before in a Turkish jail. She was getting hysterical. They also denied her the medicine she had to take every day,' she said.

One of Nicola's fellow protesters called Daphne, a German girl, had her nose broken when they were forced to stand outside. The police smashed a baton into her face while she had her hands behind her head.

By the time he arrived at prison in Pavia on Monday morning, Norman was relieved to be alive.

'But I still knew anything could happen. I was thinking "I could be in an Italian prison for five years".' At this point, none of the British prisoners had had any contact with the consular authorities. Back home, relatives and loved ones desperate for information had received nothing through official channels. Norman's girlfriend, Melanie Cooper, finally managed to get a telegram to him with the name of a lawyer hours before he was released.

On Wednesday, the suspects were finally brought in front of a magistrate. They were told their arrests were illegal. Though not charged with any crime, none can return to Italy for five years. But at last they were free.

Although British consular staff met them from prison and escorted them to the airport, the British protesters were made to pay for their own air tickets home. Their possessions had been seized, including in some cases, passports and credit cards, and they had only the clothes they stood in or gifts from Italian well-wishers.

Despite the avowed commitment of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to push the Italian authorities for a full explanation about the events of last week, as we go to press no one from the Foreign Office or the British police has contacted the Genoa Four for statements. However, their interviews with The Observer will form the basis of a file that we will pass on to the Foreign Office.

From the start of the summit violence was inevitable. Both sides prepared for it, both sides expected it. The police were spoiling for a fight. On the Friday morning, before the first brick had been thrown, British protester Andy Hay saw a police vehicle drive by his part of a peaceful march. An officer leaned out and made his hand into the shape of a gun.

'The police were ready for a rumble,' Hay said.

Preparations for violence had been taking place for months. By the time the mass of protesters arrived on Thursday, Genoa was already a city under siege. It had been divided into a 'yellow zone' and an inner 'red zone' ringing the G8 meeting. Police would seek to keep protesters out of both, falling back to the massive fortifications of the red zone if the yellow were over-run.

At a cost of

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