Ilaria Cucchi’s life changed forever after her brother died in a guarded hospital room, and she started figthing for the truth
Ilaria Cucchi was a normal person. Forty-five years old, mother of two, she used to work as a building manager in her hometown, Rome. She herself defined “church and boy scouts” as her main hobbies while growing up. On October 22, 2009, Ilaria’s life changed forever when her younger brother Stefano died in a guarded hospital room. His body covered with black and blue marks, weighing just 37 kilos. His death was all but transparent, and she started fighting for the truth.
It was not just another demise. In fact, Stefano was not supposed to be at the hospital at all: he was in protective custody because just a week before, on October 15, he had been arrested by the Carabinieri, Italy’s national gendarmerie, caught while dealing drugs.
Stefano spent the night in the barracks. He was healthy, his body was strong. Nevertheless, the morning after, coming in the courtroom to go through the scheduled hearing that would confirm his arrest, the 31-year-old man had difficulty walking, his body was visibly emaciated and a shiner marked his face.
It was clear he had been beaten but, when asked, he denied anything had happened. The judge set another hearing for a month later and, in the meantime, Stefano was jailed at the Roman prison Regina Coeli. After the hearing, though, his conditions got worse and worse, and he was quickly moved to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with several broken bones and an alarming ecchymosis.
Stefano refused the medical treatments he was in desperate need of and died a few days later. During his ordeal, Cucchi’s relatives tried to get in touch with Stefano but couldn’t reach him. His mother, father, and sister Ilaria were informed of his passing by a police officer who knocked at their door.
That moment marked the beginning of a long and draining legal battle led by Ilaria Cucchi, who never accepted the ambiguous circumstances that surrounded her brother’s last hours and never believed the first, official accounts of his death: anorexia and drug addiction.
The matter entered the Italian public debate when Ilaria decided to publish some pictures of her brother taken at the mortuary, which undeniably showed that things were different from what the authorities were trying to stage. At the end of her efforts, when justice will be made more than ten years later, Ilaria claimed that “those pictures really made the difference” in holding accountable those responsible for Stefano’s death.
From the time of his arrest until his death, more than 150 people had come in contact with Stefano Cucchi, including police officers, judges, doctors, nurses. However, a definitive verdict was never reached.
Nevertheless, Ilaria never stopped fighting. Together with her lawyer Fabio Anselmo, she quickly became a symbol for Italian activism and a firm supporter of human rights, continuing to claim that her brother had been beaten to death by the Carabinieri that arrested him that night in October.
A turning point in the investigations came in 2018, when Francesco Tedesco, one of the police officials that took part in Stefano’s arrest back in 2009, confessed that Cucchi had actually been beaten by two Carabinieri, Alessio Di Bernardo e Raffaele D’Alessandro, because he refused to collaborate during the search and identification stages.
Tedesco witnessed the event but claimed that he urged his colleagues to stop, and then tried to help Stefano. Tedesco also reported that, after that night, he filed an account telling what happened in detail, but the document was modified and the incriminating parts were removed. This branch of inquiry for misdirection and evidence cover-up is still ongoing since, and on November 12, 2019, the designated judge Federico Bona Galvagno refrained from addressing the court, being himself a “former Carabiniere.”
Due to her strenuous efforts to reach the truth, Ilaria Cucchi became a popular figure in Italian newspapers and television talk shows, so much so that the TV host Fabio Fazio defined her a “modern Antigone of our times,” referring to the Greek heroine who fought against the power to give her brother a proper burial.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Ilaria’s lawyer and partner Fabio Anselmo said: “Going out with Ilaria is like walking with the Pope: people stop her, hug her and thank her for all the efforts she is putting in the cause.” She has also been awarded several prizes that honored her fight, such as the Antigone Prize at the Human Rights Film Festival in Orvieto, Umbria.
Furthermore, Ilaria and Stefano’s stories are at the heart of a 2018 Netflix movie that retraced the last days Stefano spent at the barracks and then in the hospital. In order to “sew Stefano onto his skin,”to quote the film critic Gianni Canova, the actor Alessandro Borghi lost 20 kilos in a few weeks. The movie Sulla Mia Pelle (“On My Skin”) was officially presented at the Venice Film Festival, where it received several awards.
However, becoming such an important mediatic figure also has its downsides. Even more so if the reason behind the headlines is immediately linked to an intricate, never-ending sequence of events that involve drugs, police forces, and circles of lies.
For many years Ilaria Cucchi has been a permanent fixture at her local police station, filing thousands of charges for all the cases of hate speech she received online on a daily basis. Moreover, since the Carabinieri are actually a branch of the Italian army, Stefano’s story has been closely monitored by the government.
In 2018, when Tedesco confirmed and described the beating, the then Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini — leader of the far-right party The League — summoned Ilaria and her family at the Viminale, his office in Rome, saying that the “potential mistakes made by a few men in uniform need to be punished severely” but, nonetheless, “we cannot let these sporadic behaviors call into question the great work and commitment of all the men and women that proudly serve our State.”
The exchanges between Ilaria Cucchi and Matteo Salvini often inflamed the Italian public debate, the former defending her brother and the latter trying to reaffirm the innocence of the State, in line with its party nationalistic and patriotic ideas.
“I don’t think that a police officer could ever beat someone just for the fun of it —Salvini said at another time — if that is the case, the responsible should pay the consequences, but we have to wait for the final judgment. And anyway, I don’t really trust the Italian justice.”
After one of the many trials related to Stefano’s death, Carlo Giovanardi, a former right-wing Senator, claimed that “the ecchymosis have nothing to do with beatings”, proceeding to blame, instead, the drugs that the man was carrying with him the night of his arrest.
“The police have nothing to do with his death,” Giovanardi concluded back in 2013, stating that Stefano died of malnutrition. He also accused the doctors and nurses at the Sandro Pertini hospital that, according to his thesis, they have failed to provide assistance. Giovanardi reaffirmed his positions in 2018.
Maurizio Gasparri, Senator for Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia, embraced Giovanardi’s ideas and blamed the drugs for Stefano’s death, tweeting in 2016 that “If someone had cared about Stefano when he was alive even a tenth of how they do now, he would still be here,” subtly accusing his family of not having helped him enough in curing his addiction.
Chi ha aiutato #Cucchi a uscire dalla droga?Se avessero dedicato a lui allora un decimo dell'attenzione di oggi sarebbe ancora vivo
Vice President of the Senate Ignazio La Russa added his voice to the list of those crying to a “mediatic conspiracy against the Carabinieri and the State”: a few days after Stefano’s death, when he was Minister of the Defense, La Russa claimed: “I am absolutely certain that the police officers behaved properly.”
After Tedesco’s confession, Ilaria Cucchi said: “Now many people owe me and my family an apology.” Up to now, that hasn’t happened, but justice was eventually made.
On November 14, 2019, more than 10 years after Stefano’s death, Alessio Di Bernardo and Raffaele D’Alessandro — the two Carabinieri accused by Francesco Tedesco — were sentenced to 12 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Tedesco will spend two years and a half in jail for manipulating the arrest records.
After the hearing, Ilaria burst into tears, saying:
“It took ten years, but we kept the promise we made to Stefano the last time we saw him: we would have gone all the way.”
Ilaria Cucchi fought against the Italian judiciary system for ten years, leading an extenuating battle to give dignity back to her brother Stefano. Who knows how many Stefano are out there, with no Ilaria to protect their memory.