food / travel

In Rome, 'Dolce Vita' Café Back On Straight And Narrow After Run-In With The Mob

Once a must-stop for the European jet set, Rome's Café de Paris on the via Veneto fell under the grip of the powerful Calabrian mob. But after a criminal investigation three years ago put the locale under state control, managers are now serving &

The via Veneto has been the place to be for all kind of folk (Fabio Penna)
The via Veneto has been the place to be for all kind of folk (Fabio Penna)
Francesco Semprini

ROME - On a December morning, a group of young workers gathered along the via Veneto. The street that was the pulsating center of Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" was slowly waking up: hotels and offices opened their doors, people stopped by for breakfast. The group of workers entered Cafè de Paris, the capital's most famous cafè. They had only two hours to get ready before opening to tourists and customers.

The director of the cafè, Marcello Scofano, was managing the frenetic activity. For several years now he has been in charge of this old symbol of Rome's "bella vita." The Court of Justice in the southern Calabrian city of Reggio Calabria seized the cafè in 2009 related to charges that it had connections with the organized crime network ‘Ndrangheta. The state officially took charge of managing the cafe last July.

"Commercial activity has continued. We have 30 employees here. Their families rely on us," Scofano said.

On this early winter morning, Cafè de Paris was beginning a new life thanks to a recently launched cooperation with the anti-mafia association Libera, which puts to community use land and property seized from the criminal organizations. "We'll buy their products to sell and to use in our dishes," said Scofano.

Mobster's meet-up

Scofano was planning to launch a "legality menu" consisting of dishes prepared only with food from Libera's lands. The association produces "pasta from Campania," "Sicilian wine," and "Calabrese oil," which are produced in lands confiscated from the mafia.

These dishes will be served in the former bar of the Dolce Vita. In more recent years, the locale morphed from a jet set hot spot to a mobsters' meeting point. "We went through tough times, " Scofano said. "Of course, because we rely a lot on foreign costumers, the negative reputation abroad had a negative impact on our revenues."

Scofano was referring to the criminal investigation which led to the seizure of the cafè by Italian judicial authorities, after allegation that it had become a common meeting point of the Alvaro family of Ndrangheta. Currently, the cafè is under judicial administration.

Does something of the past Dolce Vita still exist? "A lot has changed since I came here almost 30 years ago," said Scofano. "But something still exists, especially for people who are not from Rome and come here to visit this stunning city." Being the manager of the most famous cafè of Rome is "rewarding, but tough," he said. "Now I work for a company which is the (Italian) State. We feel that we have to set an example."

Cafè de Paris is still an important meeting point for businessmen, diplomats and politicians. The beginning of a new life for this historic place is "not just symbolic, but an important event," said Scofano. "We are back to being legitimate, giving job opportunities to young people...This is the social face of the anti-mafia struggle that is hard at work around the country."

Read more from La Stampa

Photo - Fabio Penna

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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