Italian police yesterday began combing shantytowns in Rome and other big cities to locate Romanians targeted for expulsion under legislation introduced after the gruesome murder of a woman on the outskirts of the capital this week.
One small makeshift settlement near the centre had been bulldozed by midday and its inhabitants bussed away for identification. The clearance of another site, where the alleged killer of the murdered woman lived, was held up only at the request of forensic science experts so that they could finish their hunt for clues.
Carrying their belongings in bundles and plastic bags, residents fled the camp in a quiet part of northern Rome as police stood ready to tear down their shacks, already made sodden and fragile by recent heavy rain.
The prefect of Rome, Carlo Mosca, said: "I shall sign the first expulsion orders straightaway. A hard line is needed because, faced with animals, the only way to react is with maximum severity." Italian media reports said the police were anticipating several thousand expulsions.
Mr Mosca's comments, which did not prompt controversy, came amid a nationwide outcry over the death late on Thursday of Giovanna Reggiani, the 47-year-old wife of a navy captain. Ms Reggiani was robbed, sexually assaulted, beaten and then dumped in a ditch near her home.
A Romanian of Roma origin, Nicolae Mailat, 24, was remanded in custody by a magistrate yesterday, accused of murder, sexual assault and theft. His duty lawyer said he had only admitted to stealing Ms Reggiani's bag.
The killing was the latest in a string of ugly crimes this year blamed on Romanians, who form Italy's biggest immigrant community.
An MP from the anti-immigrant Northern League said his party was organising vigilante patrols in predominantly immigrant areas of Turin and Piacenza today and tomorrow. In Rome officials of the Freedom Circles, a network of political clubs set up by Silvio Berlusconi's latest protegee, Maria Vittoria Brambilla, also announced patrols. But Ms Brambilla denied all knowledge of the scheme and said she had not authorised it.
A decree published yesterday which took effect immediately empowered prefects to order the removal from Italy of EU citizens judged to pose a threat to law and order. However, it includes certain guarantees. Expulsion orders need the endorsement of a justice of the peace or, in the case of suspects in investigations and defendants in trials, the approval of a prosecutor or judge respectively. Italy's most senior police officer, Antonio Manganelli, said EU citizens would be treated "with absolute respect for human dignity, without witch-hunts".
But the head of Italy's criminal lawyers' association, Oreste Dominioni, called on his members to protest at the measure, which he described as "authoritarian".
Tens of thousands of immigrants from eastern Europe live in shantytowns in the major cities, and particularly Rome. At the camp demolished yesterday a Russian who gave his name as Sergei said: "I've been here for a year. I've never had problems with the law. I don't know now what the future holds."
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