ROME: Italy's conservative government approved tougher measures to crack down on sexual violence and illegal immigration Friday after a spate of rapes blamed mostly on foreigners.
The package increases jail sentences for rape, gives free legal counsel to victims of sexual violence and makes stalking a crime. The decree also allows mayors to organize patrols of unarmed citizens to boost security on city streets. That measure has drawn criticism from the center-left opposition, which says the government is promoting vigilante justice.
A series of rapes in recent weeks has shocked Italy, particularly since most have been blamed on foreigners, especially Romanians. Two Romanians were arrested this week for allegedly raping a 14-year-old girl on Valentine's Day.
Several violent attacks on immigrants also have been reported.
At a news conference Friday, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni defended the measures, saying that setting up organized groups of volunteers would avoid the creation of "do-it-yourself" patrols seeking to take matters into their own hands.
But the volunteer patrols have drawn criticism, including from the Vatican.
The No. 2 official in the Pontifical Council for Migrants, Monsignor Agostino Marchetto, said the creation of such patrols represented "an abdication of the state" and said it wasn't the right way to deal with the issue, the ANSA news agency reported.
The decree also allows authorities to detain immigrants for six months up from two months while they work to identify them, process asylum requests and expel those not entitled to stay.
The decree must be approved by Parliament, where Berlusconi's forces enjoy a comfortable majority.
Meanwhile, Romania's foreign minister said his country does not want citizens suspected of committing crimes in Italy to be repatriated. Cristian Diaconescu will travel to Italy on Monday, where he will discuss the issue with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
Diaconescu told foreign journalists Friday there are 33 Romanians convicted of crimes awaiting repatriation from Italy. He did not specify whether they were already serving sentences or would serve their them in Romania.
He said that it was not fair to repatriate someone merely on the basis they were a suspect and that they should be able to defend themselves at a trial.
He estimates there are 1 million Romanians living and working in Italy.