ROME (AP) — Police conducted searches across Italy on Monday against 17 anti-vaccine activists who were allegedly affiliated with a Telegram chat that espoused violence against government, medical and media figures for their perceived support of COVID-19 restrictions.
Police in Turin said the “Basta Dittatura” (Enough of the Dictatorship) chat had tens of thousands of members and was a prime forum for organizing protests against Italy’s health pass.
Like many European countries, Italy requires people to show their so-called Green Pass to dine indoors, visit museums and cinemas and for long-distance public transport. The pass shows proof of vaccination, a recent negative test or having been cured of COVID-19.
Protests have grown more acute after Italy last month became the first Western country to also require the pass to access workplaces.
In a statement Monday, police said they monitored the now-shuttered Telegram chat for weeks and identified 17 extremists who threatened Premier Mario Draghi, among others. They were considered the most dangerous of the chat members, and searches of their homes across the peninsula Monday turned up weapons and flammable acid, police told a press conference in Turin.
“Other recurring targets were also the police, doctors, scientists, journalists and other public figures accused of ‘enslavement’ and ‘collaboration’ with the ‘dictatorship’ in place,” the statement said.
Nearly every weekend has featured anti-vaccine and anti-green pass protests in Italy, including one Oct. 9 in Rome in which extremists trashed the headquarters of Italy’s main labor union. A protest this past weekend in Milan featured the American anti-vaccine activist, Robert F. Kennedy.
Last week, the Interior Ministry issued guidance to police departments nationwide advising them to restrict protests from being staged in congested city centers. The ministry reaffirmed the right of protesters to gather, but cited the potential threat to public security and contagion in recommending protests be allowed only farther afield.
Italy, where the coronavirus outbreak first erupted in Europe in February 2020, is seeing a steady increase in its daily caseload amid a new wave of infections. Authorities registered 62 cases per 100,000 inhabitants last week, the third consecutive week of increased incidence.
But Italy for now is doing better than many other western European countries. Nationwide, hospital bed capacity is well below the critical threshold and, while Italy’s official death toll of 132,775 remains one of the highest in Europe, daily deaths have remained under 100 for months. Experts cite Italy’s green pass requirement, continued indoor mask mandates and relatively high vaccination rate: 84% of the population over age 12 is fully vaccinated.