When Cécile Kyenge was appointed Italy's first black government minister in 2013, she was likened to an "orang-utan" by a politician from the country's hard right League party. Five years later the League is Italy's most popular party and has brought a defamation case against her for accusing it of racism.
Kyenge, integration minister in the liberal government of Enrico Letta, is fighting the case in a court in the northern city Piacenza brought by the League and approved by Matteo Salvini, the party's leader and Italy's powerful interior minister. She could face a large fine if found guilty.
The case comes as Salvini's anti-migration League is surging in popularity – overtaking the Five Star Movement, its coalition partner, in recent polls.
“All these attacks had the same objective: attacking me as a person, and they were racial attacks,” said Kyenge. “That’s why I asked the leader of that party, Matteo Salvini, to distance himself from what was going on within his own party, to condemn those people and sanction them according to our law and our constitution to prevent racism from becoming a political weapon. I never had an answer from him.”
Kyenge, now a member of the European Parliament for the Democratic Party, said that she had relinquished her legal immunity as an MEP to face the defamation case as a way to take a stand against racism.
Salvini’s office declined to comment on the case.
Claudia Eccher, a lawyer assisting Salvini and the League in the case, said the party had "a critical attitude towards those who generalise and call the party racist. Matteo Salvini is very precise on this. This is not only an action against Ms Kyenge but has become a matter of clarification; racism is not part of the Northern League foundations and Matteo Salvini is very clear on this."
When Kyenge was appointed in 2013 she faced a barrage of abuse from several League politicians.
Roberto Calderoli, a League senator and veteran of the party, in 2013 said: "When I see Ms Kyenge I am unable not to think about, although I don't say that it is, the appearance of an orang-utan," while a League MEP in the same year said Kyenge would impose "tribal traditions" on Italy and called the then government a "bongo bongo" administration.
Fabio Rainieri, a former League member of parliament, in 2014 posted a picture of Kyenge on his Facebook page with a picture of a monkey superimposed on her face.
The defamation case is tied to words spoken by Kyenge at an event in 2014 following the publication of the photograph by Rainieri.
Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and moved to Italy as a student, said Salvini's anti-migration rhetoric had opened a "highway" for far-right groups in Italy to voice racist abuse. Salvini has repeatedly hit back at accusations of racism from critics, arguing instead that he is trying to crack down only on illegal migration to Italy.
“Since the current government took office, it’s like if any type of verbal violence has become legitimate,” she said. “Some people are no longer ashamed, and say what they think out in the open. I have always said that Italy is not racist but there are hotbeds of racism, xenophobia that should not be underestimated.”
The integration ministry headed by Kyenge was attacked by Salvini as a waste of government spending when it was created in 2013. He called it “a useless expensive entity, a factory of hypocrisy”.
Kyenge said she hoped the defamation case, to be ruled on by 2021 by the latest according to Italian law, would help raise awareness of racism in Italy.
“It doesn’t matter if we win or lose this, what’s important is that people start to open their eyes, stand up and do not let these things go unnoticed,” she said. “This must not happen to future generations ... from this moment on I fight because there is an obligation for all political parties and all institutions to be able to apply the law against racism.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018