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article imageItalians pay homage to slain police officer

By Fanny CARRIER (AFP)     Jul 28, 2019 in World

Thousands of people paid homage Sunday to an Italian police officer whose stabbing death sparked a national outcry, while the leaked photo of a blindfolded US suspect raised protests.

Flowers were laid in front of the station where officer Mario Rega Cerciello was based, and mourners queued up to pay their last respects at a chapel where his coffin was ahead of a funeral on Monday.

Cerciello, 35, was stabbed early Friday after recently returning from his honeymoon. An Italian judge has charged two Americans, Christian Gabriel Natale Hjorth and Elder Finnegan Lee, both 19, with aggravated homicide and attempted extortion.

The police officer's killing tapped into tensions in Italy over immigration when the country's far-right Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, responding to initial reports that the suspects were North African, denounced the killers as "bastards".

Cerciello's funeral is to take place in his home town near Mount Vesuvius, with Salvini and the country's other deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio due to attend.

Meanwhile, a photo taken of one suspect blindfolded and handcuffed while under questioning has been criticised, with Italian media saying the officer responsible for placing the blindfold would be transferred to another post.

Giandomenico Caiazza, head of a lawyer's union, said it might invalidate the interrogation, which police say included a confession.

The suspects say they did not realize that Cerciello and a colleague were police officers, but thought they were friends of an alleged drug dealer from whom the pair had stolen a bag after what was supposed to be cocaine turned out to be crushed aspirin, according to media reporters citing investigators.

The victim of the theft tipped off the police, but when two officers in plain clothes went to arrest the two US tourists, one of them pulled a knife.

Police said surveillance cameras helped them track the pair to their four-star hotel where they arrested them. Their bags were packed and they had been planning to fly home that same evening.

Officers allegedly found a large knife hidden in the false ceiling of their hotel room.

- Salvini posts photo -

Some Italian media underscored questions about the case, such as why an alleged drug dealer would go to the police, why the paramilitary policemen went to a scheduled meeting point in plain clothes without backup, and why they did not identify themselves as police or draw their weapons.

Salvini was among those who posted the picture of the blindfolded suspect on social media, with the comment: "The only victim was a man, a son, a husband, a carabiniere (police officer), a servant of the country!"

Initial confusion that the culprits in the crime might be North African was sparked after police released a statement saying Cerciello's partner at the scene had said the suspects were "probably African".

"Apparently they're not Italians," said Salvini during a television appearance Friday morning. "What a surprise!"

He called for "hard labour for life... for these bastards".

The case has also reminded many Italians of a long-running affair that involved Amanda Knox, a US student who was convicted and acquitted years later of the murder of a flatmate in Perugia, central Italy in 2007.

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