Italian PM Guiseppe Conte apologises for blindfolding of US suspect in police killing

Pictures of one of two US students showed him handcuffed and illegally blindfolded in police custody.

The coffin of the Carabinieri officer Mario Cerciello Rega leaves the Santa Croce church in Somma Vesuviana, near Naples, on July 29, 2019, after the funeral mass. Mario Rega Cerciello died after being stabbed eight times as he and a colleague tried to arrest two men following a complaint for theft. Two US teenagers appeared in court in Rome on July 27 after they were arrested over the police officer's murder whose death has sparked a national outcry. / AFP / Eliano IMPERATO
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Italy’s Prime Minister apologised on Monday for the blindfolding of one of two Americans suspected of killing a police officer in Rome saying the country needed to “avoid being swept along by the wave of emotional reactions”.

Giuseppe Conte made the statements on the day of an emotional funeral held for the slain police officer Mario Cerciello Rega in his home town near Naples, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

Sentiment boiled over in the charged ceremony as the 35-year-old was laid to rest at a church in Somma Vesuviana, where he had been married just two months earlier.

Mr Conte was responding to images, shared on social media, which appeared to show one of two US suspects in Mr Rega’s killing handcuffed with a blindfold wrapped around his face. At the time he was being held by police in Rome. The head of Italy’s Carabiniere, the nation’s military police, has said those responsible for the blindfolding of 18-year-old Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, have been disciplined.

Natale-Hjorth and his friend, 19-year-old Finnegan Lee Elder, face charges of murder and extortion over the alleged knife attack last week. Police have said the teenagers, both from San Francisco in the United States, have confessed to the crime. An autopsy has shown Mr Rega, who had recently returned to policing duties following his honeymoon, had been stabbed 11 times.

CNN reported the knife used in the stabbing was brought to Europe from the United States by Elder, as court documents have shown the two American students have both turned on one another.

General Francesco Gargaro, of the Provincial Carabinieri Command said the size of the weapon was consistent with some of the stab wounds suffered by Mr Rega. Gen Gargaro commented his injuries were "very big, 17 centimetres deep, the length of the blade".

As they attempt to point the finger of suspicion at one another, court documents have outlined that the two teenager’s accounts of Friday’s events are “absolutely in contrast”. Police have said their own version of events is closer to that of Natale-Hjorth. While Elder is accused of the stabbing both are being held on suspicion of murder and allegedly confessed in the early hours of Friday morning.

"Italy is a state of the rule of law," Conte wrote in the statement on Facebook. "We have principles and consolidated values. We must avoid being swept along by the wave of emotional reactions, while also taking into account that our legislation provides for life sentences for murder without any reduction in the term to be served,” he added.

The Italian Prime Minister’s statements were more tempered than those of his Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a right-wing firebrand who may ride a continuing wave of populist sentiment to replace Mr Conte. Mr Salvini denounced those with misgivings over the American’s mistreatment.

“Hoping that the killer of our poor Carabiniere never gets out of prison, I remind do-gooders that in the United States, whoever kills risks the death penalty,” tweeted Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. “I’m not saying we’ll get to that, but yes to a life in prison [in labor, obviously],” Mr Salvini wrote on Twitter.

The polarising Italian populist was in attendance with hundreds of mourners at Mr Rega’s funeral, where he was reportedly welcomed with applause. Flowers were laid for the slain police officer by the leaders of Italy’s Senate and Chamber of Deputies as well as the Minister of Defence and the General Commander of the Caribinieri, La Repubblica reported.

At a court hearing into the case on Monday the judge in Rome said the two American suspects would be held in jail as they awaited trial. The judge said the pair showed a "total absence of self-control and critical capacity, highlighting that they are dangerous to society".

The teenagers were arrested last week after series of events beginning with a bogus drug deal ended with Mr Rega losing his life. The two students were reportedly staying at a luxury hotel in the Italian capital, while on holiday, and had attempted to purchase cocaine from a man who took them to a local drug dealer.

When they discovered the white powder they had been given was crushed up aspirin they stole they stole the first man’s bag, which also contained his phone, demanding money and cocaine before they would return it.

The middleman then reported the theft to police at which point Mr Rega and a colleague went to find the two Americans near their hotel. A physical altercation followed during which Elder is accused of stabbing Mr Rega. Meanwhile police have said Natale-Hjorth assaulted the second, unnamed policeman.

The 19-year-old has said because Mr Rega was in plainclothes he believed him to be another drug-dealer. Police have said the knife, used to stab the police officer, was discovered in the two students’ hotel room, where they were arrested.