The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Denaturalizing for Post-Citizenship Crimes: Italy Edition

Italy's recent legal changes go beyond denaturalizing for pre-naturalization activity and set a dangerous precedent.


Italy has suffered a horrific crime, in which a school bus driver allegedly kidnapped a bus containing 51 children and subsequently lit it on fire during a police stand-off. Thankfully, the children were rescued through smashed windows even though some of them were tied up, and in the end nobody died (although 14 people were injured through smoke inhalation).

The bus driver was 47-year-old Ousseynou Sy, an Italian citizen born in Senegal who was protesting the Italian government's immigration policy and recent related deaths in the Mediterranean. Sy apparently explicitly stated, "Stop the deaths at sea, I'll carry out a massacre." Italy has for some time now refused docking to boats carrying up to hundreds of migrants, thus prolonging their journey and risks to their lives.

Many question why Sy was allowed to drive a school bus when he had previously been convicted of assault and driving while intoxicated. For his recent actions, prosecutors are charging him with kidnapping, attempted mass murder, causing a fire and resisting arrest, and they are still considering whether to add terrorism charges. As a parallel matter, officials from the interior ministry are apparently investigating whether to revoke Sy's Italian citizenship.

Through what mechanism would they accomplish this goal? Italy passed a legal measure last year that would allow the revocation of citizenship for individuals convicted of particular terrorist offenses that result in convictions of five to ten years. Note that this would apply to entirely post-naturalization criminal actions.

While Sy–who tried to kill dozens of children–does not elicit a great deal of personal sympathy, this sends the message to naturalized citizens that they are never truly equals before the law given that natural-born Italian citizens do not run the same risk. Convicting Sy for his actions and condemning them in strong terms does not require destabilizing the concept of citizenship.

While the U.S. does not have provisions to denaturalize individuals for crimes they commit as citizens, some government officials have taken actions suggesting they would like to see the law heading in that direction here as well. One such example is the case of New Jersey-born Hoda Muthana, about which I blogged previously, where the government did not question the timing of when her diplomat father renounced his status and did not declare her a non-citizen until she became involved with ISIS in her 20s. While this U.S. case involves a different mechanism, the background philosophy and the outcome could be much the same.

It is worth noting in closing that the hero in the bus saga was not an Italian citizen himself: It was 13-year-old Ramy Shehata–born in Italy to Egyptian parents–who hid his cell phone when the driver took those of other students and later managed to call his father while pretending to pray in Arabic. Thanks to his bravery and quick thinking, his family was able to alert the police of the kidnapping, which played a key role in saving everyone's life.

After the ordeal, Shehata's father said: "My son did his duty, it would be nice if he got Italian citizenship now. We would love to stay in this country. When I met him yesterday I hugged him hard."