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Italian judge extends inquiry into Yemen deaths

Angela Giuffrida Rome correspondent
·3-min read

A judge in Rome has ordered a six-month extension of an investigation into the alleged involvement of Italian-made weapons in a bombardment that killed a family of six in Yemen.

The Ahdal family were killed on 6 October 2016 when their home in Deir al-Jari, a village in north-west Yemen, was destroyed during an overnight bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia.

Fragments of the bomb that killed the family were traced back to RWM Italia, a unit of the German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall AG. RWM Italia is headquartered in northern Italy, with production facilities on the island of Sardinia. The Italian export authority, UAMA, is also under investigation.

The six-month extension of the case, which prosecutors had previously said should be dismissed, comes as it was reported by La Stampa newspaper this week that the export of Italian weapons to Saudi Arabia increased significantly when Matteo Renzi was prime minister between early 2014 and late 2016.

Renzi, a senator who leads the small Italia Viva party, was fiercely condemned in January after attending an investment forum in Riyadh. During the Future Investment Initiative (FII) event he interviewed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and heaped praise on him, while citing Saudi Arabia as “a place for a new renaissance for the future”.

Renzi has faced increasing pressure in recent days to clarify his relations with the country after US intelligence agencies concluded in a report last week that Prince Mohammed approved the 2018 murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi’s fiance, Hatice Cengiz, told the Italian news agency Ansa on Wednesday that Renzi’s praise for the crown prince was “incomprehensible”. “Perhaps he should try to understand the reality of the situation in Saudi Arabia better and what Bin Salman did to Jamal,” she said.

There have also been calls for Renzi to resign from his role as a member of FII’s advisory board, for which he reportedly receives $80,000 a year. Renzi said in an interview this week that he conducted activities outside Italy “that are allowed by law”, and received fees on which he paid tax in Italy.

He said neither Italia Viva nor the Democratic party when it was led by him received money from foreign governments, and he stressed the importance of having good relations with Saudi Arabia.

The investigation into RWM Italia and UAMA began after legal action by a group of human rights organisations from Italy, Germany and Yemen in 2018 asking prosecutors to look into whether there had been a violation of Italian and international law in the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.

The organisations hoped that by focusing on the well-documented killing of the Yemeni family they would increase their chances of success.

During Renzi’s time in office, Italian exports of weapons increased sixfold to €14.6bn, La Stampa reported. Of this, arms valued at €855m went to Saudi Arabia, including 20,000 bombs made by RWM Italia valued at €411m. Talks on the deal for the RWM Italia consignment began in 2014, and the deal was given the green light by UAMA in 2016.

In a statement emailed to the Guardian, Fabio Sgarzi, the chief executive of RWM Italia, acknowledged the extension of the investigation and said two previous legal complaints by the humanitarian groups had been “definitively dismissed by the prosecutor’s office without detecting any violation by RWM Italia”.

Sgarzi said RWM Italia worked “in strict compliance with the authorisations issued by the state, which defines the terms by which the entire defence sector can export military goods,” and it would make itself available to the judiciary for any further necessary verification.

“I am confident that everything will end, as in the past, with the confirmation that the firm acted correctly,” he said.

In January the Italian government under the then prime minister Giuseppe Conte blocked the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia owing to its involvement in the Yemen conflict and in the murder of Khashoggi. Several other EU states froze weapons sales to Saudi Arabia in 2019.