A Sexism Storm Over Italy’s Courts, With Female Judges at Its Center

By Gaia Pianigiani. March 18, 2019.

ROME — It was a demoralizing few days for women in Italian courts.

A man who stabbed his wife to death was sentenced to a reduced term of 16 years in prison by a judge who cited the killer’s “anger and desperation, profound disappointment and resentment” over the victim’s relationship with another man.

The judge’s reasoning was made public on Wednesday.

The Friday before that, as Italy’s highest court rejected an appeals court’s decision to clear two men of rape charges, it emerged that the judges in the previous appeal had doubted the accuser’s account in part because they considered her “too masculine” to have made an attractive victim.

The men will now face a retrial.

Both cases, which involved female judges, provoked angry comments about entrenched gender stereotypes in Italy.

According to the National Institute for Statistics, violence against women is slightly going down in Italy, but the number of women seriously wounded by their partners is rising. The number of reported rapes seems to be holding steady.

Elena Biaggioni, a lawyer and Italy’s delegate to the advocacy group Women Against Violence Europe, said the recent rulings pointed to an ingrained problem. “We are not discussing the merit of the sentences, but the disruptive stereotypes that weigh like boulders in the words they used,” she said.

“Would we ever justify and mitigate a sentence against mafia mobsters because they were raised in a difficult family context?” Ms. Biaggioni asked. “Or robbers because they come from poor backgrounds? Would anyone feel for them?”

Ms. Biaggioni was referring to the 16-year sentence handed down for the murder of Jenny Angela Coello Reyes, who was killed last year in the northern city of Genoa by her husband, Napoleon Javier Gamboa Pareja. Prosecutors had sought a 30-year prison term, though the use of a fast-track trial process reduced that to 20.

Judge Silvia Carpanini wrote in a document explaining her decision that Mr. Gamboa Pareja had acted “as a reaction to the woman’s behavior, completely incoherent and contradictory, which gave him false hope and disappointed him at the same time.”

Mr. Gamboa Pareja had returned to his native Ecuador because Ms. Coello Reyes began a relationship with another man, but in early 2018 she urged him to come back to Italy, promising to break up the affair. Once in Genoa, he realized that the two lovers were still in close contact and that she was ambivalent about her feelings for her husband.

Mr. Gamboa Pareja also had “violent and impulsive reactions” toward Ms. Coello Reyes in previous years, the judge noted. But she described the wife’s behavior as the mitigating “context” for the homicide.

“The contradictory reasoning resembles the infamous honor killing that was abolished in this country in 1981,” Giuseppe Maria Gallo, a lawyer for the victim’s family, said in a phone interview, referring to a legal provision that specified shorter sentences for men who killed wives, sisters or daughters who had engaged in illicit sex.

“Over the years, he had beaten her up, cut her hair, and he was so lucid after the killing that he hid his clothes, and vanished for three days,” Mr. Gallo said. “What else did he need to do to get a full sentence?”


Mara Carfagna, a lawmaker who is vice president of the lower house of Parliament, expressed concern about cases where judges “reduce the sentences because they are understanding toward the reasons for a woman’s killing.”Credit: Ivan Romano/Getty Images.


Judge Carpanini defended her decision in the national news media on Thursday.

Mr. Gamboa Pareja “meandered for a couple of nights, let the police catch him, to some extent he was a sad case,” she said in an interview with the daily newspaper La Stampa. “He didn’t premeditate his attack for days or stab her 30 times as I’ve seen in other much grimmer cases.”

Mara Carfagna, a lawmaker from the center-right party Forza Italia who is vice president of the lower house of Parliament and a longtime promoter of women’s rights, expressed concern.

“These sentences are worrisome,” Ms. Carfagna told reporters, referring to cases where judges “reduce the sentences because they are understanding toward the reasons for a woman’s killing.”

The other case that became a focus of anger centered on two young men accused of raping a 22-year-old woman in 2015 in a park in Ancona, a port city on the eastern coast, where they had been drinking at night after leaving a school party. None of those involved have been publicly identified.

The two men were initially convicted, but an appeals court overturned the verdict in 2017.

A panel of three female judges found the woman’s account of events insufficiently credible, suggesting that she could have fabricated the story to justify a late night out, and a hemorrhage on her jeans, to her mother.

Doctors at the emergency room in Ancona certified a rape had occurred, but could not establish with certainty the cause of her internal wounds, the judges wrote, or that the high level of benzodiazepines found in her blood had been a result of the men spiking her beer, as she believed they had.

“We cannot rule out that she might have organized the night out, making up an excuse with her mother, drinking as much as the others and then started provoking,” the judges wrote.

One of the men had registered the woman’s number on his mobile phone under the name “Viking,” the judges wrote, adding that this alluded to an “all-but-feminine, rather masculine personality” and that a photograph of her confirmed the conclusion.

Luisa Rizzitelli, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Rebel Network, organized a march in Ancona last week to protest the appeals court’s verdict, which she said had evoked “medieval tones.”

“Rape is not a matter of desire or physical appearance; it is simply a crime,” she said. “And it’s striking that such stereotypes are spoken in a courtroom by other women.”

“However, I am not surprised,” she added. “Italy is permeated with a deeply patriarchal culture, and the influence of the Catholic Church hasn’t helped for centuries. Here, chauvinism comes from women as much as men.”

The general prosecutor in Ancona, Sergio Sottani, denounced the ruling and insisted that judges should make sure “that the language used in trials is not a further form of violence against the victims.”

A new trial will be held in a different city, Perugia, as per Italian law.

About half of magistrates in Italy are women, although the most powerful positions and key representative bodies remain male-dominated.

“It is not a matter of accusing a judge or a woman,” said Ms. Biaggioni. “Stereotypes are strong in Europe and in the U.S. alike, but Italy is culturally not very sensitive and still needs much education. Sentences like those in Genoa and Ancona are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Follow Gaia Pianigiani on Twitter: @gaia_pianigiani.