ROME (Reuters) -- Roberto Saviano, Italy’s best-known anti-Mafia author and a leading human rights campaigner, was due to stand trial in Rome on Tuesday for calling Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni a “bastard”.
If convicted of the libel charge Saviano, 43, could in theory face up to three years’ imprisonment, but under Italy’s legal system a fine of at least around 500 euros ($520) or a suspended sentence are more likely.
“I’ll defend the legitimacy of the critique of Power, even when it is harsh. I have always argued my criticism and I will also do so in court,” the author said in written remarks to Reuters before the first hearing.
Meloni sued Saviano following a December 2020 TV interview in which he lambasted her and fellow right-wing leader Matteo Salvini over their attacks on migrant rescue NGOs.
“All the bullshit [said about NGOs], sea taxis, cruises [for migrants],” he said. “All I can say is: bastards, how could you? Meloni, Salvini: bastards.”
Saviano spoke after seeing footage of a sea rescue by Spanish NGO Open Arms in which a six-month old baby from Guinea died before he could be airlifted to Italy.
Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party was then in opposition, responded with legal action against the “serial hater” Saviano.
Their court battle will play out against a backdrop of disputes between migrant rescue charities and Italy’s new right-wing government.
Rome authorities accuse NGO ships of acting illegally, and last week refused to let one of them dock in Italy, forcing it to sail to France and provoking a bitter row with the French government.
Saviano, who has lived under 24-hour police protection since his 2006 breakthrough book “Gomorrah”, an expose on the Naples mafia that was adapted into a movie and a TV series, was unrepentant about his attack on Meloni.
“What should I be apologizing for? For doing my duty to criticize Power, as all intellectuals should do?” he said.
Saviano faces two more defamation cases pitting him against Salvini, now deputy prime minister, and Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano.
The PEN International writers’ association has urged Meloni to drop her lawsuit.
“Pursing your case against him would send a chilling message to all journalists and writers in the country, who may no longer dare to speak out for fear of reprisals,” it said.