The mayor of a town in Italy who has won plaudits from around the world for accepting and integrating migrants has been arrested and accused of encouraging illegal immigration.
Domenico “Mimmo” Lucano is the 60-year-old mayor of Riace, a hilltop town in the southern region of Calabria, which for the last 20 years has been taking in migrants and refugees as a way of making up for decades of depopulation.
His efforts came to be regarded as a model for integration and in 2016 he was named by Fortune magazine as one of the world’s 50 most inspirational personalities. But on Tuesday he was placed under house arrest for allegedly aiding illegal immigration.
He was accused of helping to arrange an unspecified number of marriages of convenience between Italian men and migrant women desperate to obtain permission to stay in Italy.
He was also placed under investigation for allegedly bypassing public tender procedures and assigning rubbish collection services in the town to two co-operatives set up to help migrants find work.
Mr Lucano said he was “shocked” by the arrest warrant, while Giuseppe Gervasi, his deputy, said: “This is absurd but we won’t give up. Riace is and will remain a marvelous example (of integration).”
Within hours of the news of the arrest, prominent figures were asking whether the investigation was politically motivated.
There was outrage on social media, with Italians tweeting under the hashtag #iostoconMimmoLucano (I’m with Mimmo Lucano) and plans to hold a demonstration in Riace this weekend.
Since coming to power in June, Italy’s populist coalition has cracked down on migrant rescue boats in the Mediterranean and pledged to repatriate hundreds of thousands of failed asylum seekers.
Matteo Salvini, the interior minister, who has spearheaded the campaign, took to Twitter to comment on the arrest, gleefully asking what would be the reaction of “all the other do-gooders who want to fill Italy with migrants.”
Luigi Di Maio, deputy prime minister and leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, said the government had had no role in the arrest.
The investigation into the mayor began last November and so predates the coming to power of the coalition by more than six months.
“The decisions of magistrates must of course be respected, but I’m sure that Mimmo Lucano will be able to show that he has nothing to do with these charges,” said Laura Boldrini, a prominent centre-Left MP.
“He came up with a model of integration that has been recognised internationally. By doing so he boosted the economy of a town that, like many in Italy, was suffering from depopulation.”
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Edoardo Patriarca, from the centre-Left Democratic Party, said: “We need clarification on these charges as soon as possible. The mayor of Riace is, for many people, an example to look up to.”
Mr Lucano was a schoolteacher in Riace when, in 1998, a boatload of Kurdish refugees washed up on a nearby stretch of coastline.
He suggested offering them abandoned homes to live in, along with job training, and was elected mayor in 2002.
Since then, Riace has hosted more than 6,000 migrants and refugees from more than 20 countries.
Many of those have moved onto other countries within Europe, including Britain and Scandinavia.
The mayor created a local currency with bank notes bearing portraits of Gandhi, Che Guevara and Martin Luther King.
Asylum seekers reinvigorated the local economy by setting up workshops and businesses and their children go to a local school.
Signs outside the town announce Riace as “Il paese dell’accoglienza” – the village of welcome.