Courts sticking with “common sense” when faced with nationalist populist discourse

9 May, 2016

“More than one million desperate refugees fled to Europe last year, redefining the meaning of being down and out and in the search for a place where one might live in relative safety. This context of human suffering made the ruling last week by Italy’s highest appeals court ring all the more with mercy in the case of a hungry Ukrainian immigrant facing jail time for stealing $4.70 worth of sausage and cheese in a Genoa supermarket.

“He took possession of that small amount of food in the face of the immediate and essential need for nourishment, acting therefore in a state of need,” the Supreme Court of Cassation ruled, finding that the meal purloined by Roman Ostriakov, a destitute homeless man, “does not constitute a crime.”

No one knows for certain what the ruling might trigger as a precedent. But the news of Mr. Ostriakov’s victory after a three-year court fight quickly spread worldwide as a bit of delight in the day’s welter of assorted sufferings. Italians, who have endured high rates of poverty and unemployment, could be encouraged that court scholars cited an underlining legal doctrine — “Ad impossibilia nemo tenetur,” which means, “No one is expected to do the impossible.”

Pope Francis has described the misery of being poor in the modern world: “These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.” He warns: “The coexistence of wealth and poverty is a scandal, it is a disgrace for humanity.”

The Italian court ruling comes perfectly timed for Francis, who has invited thousands of homeless and impoverished people to Rome in November to dramatize global poverty at the European Festival of Joy and Mercy. There’s no word yet whether Roman Ostriakov might be invited.” The New York Times – Mangia! Signore: Italian Court Spares Hungry Shoplifter.

Great to see that judges can stick to common sense, even in the face of an avalanche of nationalist populist discourse about the “threats” posed by migrants. We need better access to justice for migrants and more cases going to courts: such decisions serve a key social pedagogy function in order to create a much more realistic and toned-down public discourse reflecting the complexities of migration.

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