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An Italian mayor made his village famous for welcoming migrants. He just got a 13-year prison sentence.

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An Italian mayor made his village famous for welcoming migrants. He just got a 13-year prison sentence.

The mayor who once made headlines for embracing migrants in his small Italian village has been handed a 13-year prison sentence.

Domenico Lucano’s experiment to revive his hilltop village in the south was held up as a model for refugee integration — it won awards and inspired a short film. Then the former mayor, who goes by Mimmo, wound up in court on allegations of aiding illegal immigration.

Early Newspaper

“I have spent my life chasing my ideals against mafias. I sided with the least fortunate ones — with the refugees who came,” he told reporters on Thursday outside the Locri court in Calabria, where he was running for regional elections taking place in a few days.

The prison term was nearly twice as long as prosecutors had requested, and the charges facing Lucano included abuse of office and fraud, according to Italian media. It was not immediately clear what crimes he was convicted of.

The former schoolteacher said he did not have enough money to pay the lawyers, who argue Lucano made no illicit funds out of his term. They have pledged to appeal, which he can do twice before having to carry out the jail sentence.

“I thought I could contribute to redemption of my land that has a negative image. It was an unforgettable, fantastic experience,” 63-year-old Lucano said. “But … enough. For me, everything ends now.”

Like his medieval village of Riace, which he ran from 2004 to 2018, towns and villages in Calabria, struggling with unemployment, have been drained of young people who are going north to richer parts of Italy or leaving the country.

In the wake of a refugee surge in Europe, Lucano’s plan to take in hundreds of migrants brought life back to a poor, depopulated community. The new residents allowed the village to fill abandoned houses with help from government funds, reopen shops and keep the school open.

But authorities arrested Lucano in 2018 and accused him of arranging “marriages of convenience” to get around rules for migrants. His fans feared political motivations: At the time, Italy’s right-wing government had vowed to crack down on immigrants, deeming those who helped them criminals and putting some aid workers on trial.

After Thursday’s ruling, Matteo Salvini, an anti-immigration hard-liner who praised Lucano’s arrest when he was interior minister, called him “a champion of radical chic” and took aim at uproar from left-wing politicians.

The shock sentence, 13 years and two months, drew outrage from many other Italians. Some were quick to note the migrant-friendly mayor got a longer prison term by a year than Luca Traini, a right-wing gunman who shot six African immigrants in a 2018 rampage in central Italy’s Macerata.

“If the laws are criminal, the righteous are heroes and resistance is a duty. Proudly complicit,” Baobab Experience, a Rome charity that helps refugees with shelter, food and legal advice, wrote on Friday after the ex-mayor’s sentencing.

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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An Italian mayor made his village famous for welcoming migrants. He just got a 13-year prison sentence.