In my chapter of the book edited by Phillip Charles Lucas and Thomas Robbins, New Religious Movements in the 21st Century (New York London: Routledge, 2004) I listed several factors why Italy's "surprisingly favorable environment for religious minorities" may soon change. These included 9/11, the impression made on the Italian media by the "Moonie" marriage of Roman Catholic Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo in 2001, and scandals occasioned by frauds perpetrated by TV psychics.
All these factors weighed in the unanimous approval on March 4 by the Senate's Justice Commission of a law introducing in the Italian Criminal Code a new Section, 613-bis, introducing the crime of "mental manipulation" punishing with a 2 to 6 year jail term the use of "personality conditioning or suggestion techniques, capable of excluding or greatly limiting the capacity to make free choices". Penalties are more severe if the crime is committed within the context of a group "practising or sponsoring activities aimed at creating or exploiting the physical or psychological dependence of members". Comments by the sponsoring legislator, a member of Mr. Berlusconi's majority "Forza Italia" party and a lawyer, Ms. Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, make reference to both psychics and cults, and to media articles about "brainwashing" (a term avoided in the draft law itself).
The draft law should be approved by the Senate in full session and by the House and has still its way to go. If approved, it would run problems of constitutionality, considering that in 1981 Italy's Constitutional Court eliminated as against the Constitution former article 603 of the Criminal Code on "plagio", a crime very similar to the present "mental manipulation". The draft law's approval by the Commission is however symptomatic of a new climate in Italy. Interestingly, however, the promotion and the approval by the Senate's Justice Commission have been almost clandestine. Unlike in France, there has been no media campaign celebrating the new law. Only some specialized legal and anti-cult Web sites have made any significant reference to the event. This is perhaps a strategy in order to avoid national and international reactions.