ROME — Before her brother Stefano died in the prison wing of a Rome hospital on Oct. 22, 2009, Ilaria Cucchi lived what she described as a “normalissima” life, as a model wife and working mother of two.
That all changed after she saw her brother’s body stretched out on a morgue slab, his face emaciated, his eyes ringed by dark purple bruises. It was immediately clear to her that he had been beaten after his arrest a week earlier — with a stash of hashish and cocaine that he said were for personal use — and that he might have died as a result.
In that moment, she has said countless times in countless interviews and public encounters over the past nine years, looking at the “tortured corpse” of her brother, Ms. Cucchi vowed to establish how he had been allowed to die “in solitude and indifference.”
That quest — undertaken with unshakable determination — has transformed Ms. Cucchi into one of Italy’s best-known and admired human rights crusaders. In her search for truth, she has coolly faced down antagonistic prosecutors, law enforcement officials, politicians and news media outlets.
But still, after nine years, 13 separate trials and the attendant publicity — there is even a film about her brother’s final days — such is the challenge of navigating Italy’s multilayered judicial system that the truth of what happened has not yet fully emerged.
“People constantly stop and thank me on the street,” she said in an interview in her comfortable Rome apartment this week. “Before, I’d think, ‘Why are you thanking me?’ Now, I realize that they recognize what I am doing, what my family has endured. It’s the frustration we all feel when we come up against hostile institutions.”
Ms. Cucchi’s public appearances draw hundreds, even thousands, of supporters at events, and she has been feted with commendations and awards. She has become a fixture on television talk shows, her appearances often coinciding with a spike in ratings. A Neapolitan street artist recently immortalized her along with Che Guevara and the soccer legend Diego Maradona.
“You are the modern Antigone of our times,” a popular talk show host, Fabio Fazio, told Ms. Cucchi in a recent interview, referring to the figure in Greek mythology who seeks a proper burial for her brother, Polynices.
Italians have also responded to her indignation at her brother’s death in the custody of institutions — law enforcement, legal and medical — that exist to protect citizens.
“He died amid the indifference of others,” Ms. Cucchi said during a break on Wednesday at yet another court hearing. “Stefano was seen by 150 people in the week between his arrest and his death — we counted — and all of them pretended not to see him,” she said. “Not only did they not act out of human compassion, but none did their duty as public officials.”
Some of those 150 people — medical staff members, social workers, prison guards, lawyers, prosecutors and judges, as well as the Carabinieri officers who first arrested and detained him — have already been tried in relation to his death. But in nearly all of those cases a final judgment has not been reached. In part, that is because prosecutors and Ms. Cucchi have challenged almost every acquittal, and new investigations have opened more leads.
Ms. Cucchi, who is 44, sat attentively throughout Wednesday’s daylong hearing, as she and her parents have done untold times during all those trials. “We’ve never missed a hearing. Not even with a fever,” she said.
The courtroom was packed with television cameras and print reporters, as well as ordinary Romans attracted to the high-visibility case. Ms. Cucchi did not flinch when one witness, a male nurse, described finding her brother dead in his hospital bed during a routine morning call. She did, however, seek out her parents, sitting in the back row of the courtroom, whose suffering through the years has been discernible, she said. “It’s their son” being talked about, she said.
Ilaria Cucchi never expected to end up as one of Italy’s most famous human-rights activists. After high school she worked for her father, a surveyor, before taking a course to become a condominium administrator. She married her high school sweetheart and had two children, Valerio, now 16, and Giulia, 10. “I was happy,” she said.
But Stefano’s death and the years of legal battles have turned her life upside down. She separated from her husband, and is now romantically involved with Fabio Anselmo, her family’s lawyer, whom she hired to take her brother’s case. His first piece of advice to her had been to have photographs taken during the autopsy.
Those graphic images, which show evident bruising on Stefano’s face and back, did much to sway public opinion. She has brandished the photos on several occasions to draw attention to the case when it risked slipping into general indifference or when the narrative became distorted because of her brother’s past drug use.
In her transformation from mother and wife to public figure, Ms. Cucchi has taken to writing: a book about her brother, a blog in the Italian edition of HuffPost and a Facebook account with more than 387,000 likes that chronicles the ins and outs of the complicated case.
“That’s a lot. It shows that people are tired of a justice system” that does not look out for the powerless, she said. “The state has to stop protecting itself and start protecting citizens.”
She is often suggested as a political hopeful, but after one unsuccessful run for office she claims to have no further aspirations. “I’ve been doing politics, fighting for the rights of the least powerful for the past nine years,” she said.
The trial of the five carabinieri involved in Stefano’s arrest now playing out in a Rome courtroom is colloquially known as the Cucchi-bis trial. Three of them have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, the other two with slander and making false statements. The trial took an unexpected turn last month when it emerged in court that one of the five had given testimony last summer admitting to having witnessed two fellow officers brutally beating Stefano. It was the public admission that Ms. Cucchi had been waiting and hoping for.
A parallel investigation is underway on a possible cover-up of the crime within the Carabinieri, and prosecutors are looking into accusations of false testimony and falsified documents that are making their way up the chain of command.
If Stefano Cucchi’s case was already well known here, thanks to his sister’s perseverance, it became an even greater cause célèbre after the presentation in August at the Venice Film Festival of “Sulla Mia Pelle,” (“On My Skin”) a dramatization of his final days, directed by Alessio Cremonini.
The film, subsequently distributed by Netflix, unflinchingly chronicles Mr. Cucchi’s ordeal from the day of his arrest to his death, and throughout Italy public showings of the film have become social events — at times, with political overtones. The web was abuzz this week after reports emerged that Carabinieri officers had attended one showing of the film in Calabria and demanded a list of names of those present.
Ms. Cucchi and her family have also been subject to harassment, mostly through social media. She said she had become a habitué of the local police station, where she regularly files charges against people who have threatened her.“Before, people used to insult Stefano,” she said. “Now that the truth is emerging, they have begun insulting us.”
Ms. Cucchi is optimistic that the current trial, which began last year, will lead to the conviction of the Carabinieri officers. A sentence is expected next year, but appeals are, again, likely to follow.
She says she has great confidence in the prosecutor trying the case, Giovanni Musarò, who previously brought mob bosses to trial in southern Italy. “He won’t stop in front of anything,” she said.
As it turns out, neither has she.
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