The first-degree sentence pronounced by the Court of Lecce (Italy) on Friday, March 19, 2021 amplified the wound that the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) pipeline opened in the Salento region. Convictions that add up to decades of imprisonment, interdictions from public office for up to five years, in addition to fines for more than 90 people. The prosecutor had mostly requested minimum sentences and acquittal, however the judge decided to take a much stronger line.
TAP is undoubtedly one of the most controversial mega infrastructure projects from the last decade in Italy and Europe. It extends over more than 800 kilometers through Greece, Albania and the Adriatic Sea before arriving at the shore of San Basilio, 20 km south of Lecce. From there it crosses 8 kilometers inland: up to a depressurization plant located among secular olive trees and four villages in the countryside of Melendugno. The first houses stand only a few hundred meters away. Then, a section of the pipeline known as “TAP Interconnection” heads north to Brindisi for another 50 kilometers. The Italian company Snam is managing this final part of the pipeline which aims at connecting the pipeline to the national distribution network.
In 2012, the inhabitants of Melendugno and neighboring towns started to oppose the project as it threatened to indelibly mark their territories. Hundreds of teenagers, adults and elderly people tried to stop the eradication of thousands of olive trees by literally standing in between the trees and the trucks that wanted to enter the site.
It was only when the government sent thousands of police officers to "defend" the construction site from "protesters" four years ago that national media started to report on this popular resistance. The memories of these days of resistance have largely faded, especially after a year of COVID-19. But today they resurface, with the courtrooms of Lecce debating those past events as well as what took place in the following years: the creation of a “red” military zone to counter the local resistance.
The verdicts in March are only those of three of several trials that involve hundreds of people, from teenagers to mothers and grandmothers, who are facing heavy charges. If found guilty at the end of the judicial process, these people collectively risk fines of up to €240,000 and legal fees of up to €70,000.
The events of 2017 and 2018 at the center of the trials against the activists were also the scene of alleged violence by law enforcement authorities: nine people that were handcuffed filed a complaint on the matter. Although the names of those responsible for the police operation are known, the proceedings are still “against unknown”, according to a press release from the team of lawyers defending the activists.
A not-exactly-balanced balance of justice seems to lean on the side of this "strategic" project strongly promoted by the European Union which, as part of the list of EU “Projects of common interest", must be built whatever it costs.
This imbalanced and unfair treatment is made even clearer when taking into account the continuous postponements of the other trial against the promoter of the pipeline - the Swiss multinational TAP AG owned by gas majors Socar, BP, Snam Spa, Fluxys, Enagas and Axpo - and eighteen managers of the various companies contracted for the execution of the construction work. This trial, which should have got to the heart in November 2020, has been postponed several times, unlike the trials against the activists.
TAP AG is charged for causing environmental disaster between November 2016 and July 2019, with regards to the construction of the pipeline and the removal of olive trees in "Le Paesane". These offenses relate to the exact construction work that the residents have tried to prevent, with actions of civil disobedience but also through dozens of complaints to the prosecutor office, administrative appeals and complaints to the public banks that are financing the pipeline.
It is no coincidence that the resistance against TAP has already made history in the corridors of the European Investment Bank (EIB) in Luxembourg. Not only was this massive €1.5 billion loan the largest since the creation of the Bank, but it will also be remembered as the project that received the most complaints for violations of international environmental and social regulations and standards. These complaints came not only from Italy, but also from other transit countries of TAP like Greece and Albania.
The situation on the ground is not much better in Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, the countries crossed by the eastern section of the Southern Gas Corridor, of which TAP is the Western part. In these countries, critical voices have denounced human rights violations against activists, lawyers and journalists who fill the prisons of Baku and Ankara for opposing autocratic governments and the absence of civil liberties. The gas that is to arrive in Italy is in fact extracted from the offshore fields of Shah Deniz, in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Azerbaijan.
A central point in the court order signed by the Public Prosecutor concerns the violation of the European environmental legislation, with the environmental impact assessment for the project having failed to take into account its cumulative impacts. According to the prosecutor, this would make invalid both the environmental permit and the authorization issued by the Italian government to carry out the construction.
For years, every report and every administrative appeal has been dealt with by the Italian Government and project promoter as simply another obstacle to overcome by means of special decrees.
A key concern raised by the activists and by the Technical commission of Melendugno relates to the pollution of water reserves. The pipeline receiving terminal and the depressurization plant are not located in an industrial area, but in the middle of fields and olive trees (some being thousands of years old), in an agricultural and touristic area where drinking water is clearly a resource to be protected.
These concerns were first communicated to the Ministry and then to the Public Prosecutor's Office, and the pollution of the aquifer constitutes a significant part of the alleged crimes of multinationals invoked at the Court of Lecce.
Justice will take its course in the trial against TAP AG. We will never know what could have happened if the Italian government, the European Commission, the EIB and other public banks backing the project had properly overseen the project. Perhaps an informed public debate would have taken place on the "zero option", that is the non-construction of the pipeline. A public discussion where the motivations of the activists, including their slogan "NO TAP here or elsewhere" could have been seriously examined, instead of being dismissed and repressed with an iron fist by the Italian government.
The public funding going to this mega-infrastructure project with dubious climate, environmental and social footprint could have instead been used to start building real energy independence away from fossil fuels.
The pursuit of the trials in Italy on TAP will tell if we are really facing a two-speed justice: one harsh on activists, and merciful to fossil fuel multinationals.
On April 6, 2021 Counter Balance published a press briefing on the TAP case. You can find it below.