March 3, 2015 / 6:17 PM / 3 years ago

Activist writer's trial tests freedom of expression in Italy

Italian writer Erri De Luca answers to reporter question during an interview with Reuters at his home in the countryside outside Rome March 1, 2015. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

ROME (Reuters) - When he lent his support to a fight against a high-speed train line through the mountains between France and Italy, Erri De Luca never expected to face jail.

But the 64-year-old Naples-born writer takes the witness stand on March 16, accused of inciting crime by saying in an interview that the controversial line should be sabotaged.

“If they convict me, censorship has triumphed,” De Luca said at his home in the countryside outside Rome. “In that courtroom I am the accused, but that courtroom is also under scrutiny from public opinion.”

De Luca, who wrote some of his prize-winning poems and stories when he was part of the now-defunct Lotta Continua (Continuous Fight) revolutionary group in the 1970s and 1980s, took up the cause of the “No TAV” movement in 2005.

The movement, named for treno ad alta velocita -- “high speed train” in Italian -- is often blamed for violent protests. It opposes the long-delayed Lyon-Turin line, construction of which French President Francois Hollande said last week would start in 2016, some 15 years after an agreement to build the railway.

De Luca says drilling into the mountain to make a planned 57-km tunnel would release asbestos and radioactive deposits, constituting a “rape” of the picturesque Susa Valley, where there is already a train line.

The company set up to do preliminary work on part of the line, LTF, says it has done rigorous environmental checks, including for asbestos and radiation.

Forty-seven activists were sentenced in January over a 2011 clash with police, one of the biggest clampdowns on a group that sees the project as a potential environmental disaster that diverts billions of euros from recession-hit Italians.

Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, has also been sentenced for breaking a police seal during a No TAV protest.

Following the arrest of two activists reportedly stopped with shears and petrol bombs in their car in 2013, De Luca told the Huffington Post: “The TAV should be sabotaged. This is why shears were necessary: they are useful to cut fences.”

In response, LTF filed a charge with an Italian prosecutor. Maurizio Bufalini, director general of LTF at the time, said the company considered its employees, some of whom have received death threats and live with body guards, when making the case.

“In a situation that was already so tense, for a person with their own platform, a famous person, to say the right thing to do is sabotage the site seemed to us absolutely out of place,” Bufalini said.

De Luca contests the charge, saying the prosecution has not explained what actions he incited.

“You accuse me of incitement, let me meet, look in the face of someone I have incited, that way I know what he has done at my instigation. The crime is incitement in the abstract, it corresponds to nothing,” he said.

If convicted, De Luca faces between one and five years in jail. He would not appeal.

Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Larry King

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