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Can you go to prison in the Vatican?


Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA | I.Media

I.Media - published on 12/05/23

The days of the Inquisition are long past, but the Vatican is still a city-state that has to deal with crime. What happens to criminals who are sentenced to prison?
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The Vatican is an independent state with its own judiciary, as evidenced by the so-called “London Building Trial,” which is due to conclude in mid-December. If people are convicted in Vatican courts and sentenced to prison time, where do they fulfill their sentence?

Vatican deputy Promoter of Justice Settimio Carmignani Caridi explained to I.Media how possible sentences would be applied in the Papal State.

I.MEDIA: Does the Vatican have the means to incarcerate convicted offenders, and does it have a prison?

Settimio Carmignani Caridi: The Vatican has a prison that is guarded by the gendarmerie corps. It consists of a few cells that meet the highest standards. They’re much more comfortable than Italian cells. However, cases of convicts being incarcerated in the Vatican City State are extremely rare. There has hardly ever been more than one at a time since the state was founded in 1929. 

Recently, environmental activists who damaged the Vatican Museums’ famous Laocoon statue were sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for five years. How will this sentence be enforced?

Caridi: The prison sentence has been suspended on condition that these people are not sentenced for other crimes within a period of five years. In practice, given the nature of the offense, and given that it is difficult to envisage the same activists returning to make similar protests at the Vatican, they will never serve those nine months. Bear in mind that in other cases in the Vatican a papal pardon has been granted after conviction. So the prisons are never crowded.

If the defendants in the “London Building Trial” are sentenced to prison, where will they serve their sentences?

Caridi: If the sentences are not suspended, the convicts will serve their sentences within the Vatican, either in prison or under house arrest.

Trials and prison in the Vatican vs. in Italy

If the Vatican justice system imposes a prison sentence on Cardinal Angelo Becciu or one of the other defendants, could they serve the sentence in an Italian prison?

Caridi: There is no agreement between Italy and the Vatican City State on this subject, and the Vatican has not, to my knowledge, signed any international convention or treaty on the matter. Given the difference in treatment in Italian and Vatican prisons, such a solution would not be desirable for the condemned person. And this has never happened.

What has happened on several occasions, however, is that people who have committed crimes in the Vatican and then taken refuge in Italy have served their sentences in that country, after having been tried and sentenced there on behalf of the Holy See, under judicial agreements governed by the Lateran Treaty [which regulates relations between Italy and the Holy See, editor’s note].

Will the defendants be able to appeal the sentence to the Vatican courts? Or appeal to an international tribunal?

Caridi: They can certainly appeal to the Vatican Court of Appeal, and we can expect them to do so if they are convicted. A legitimate appeal to the Vatican Supreme Court is also possible. Some of the defendants’ lawyers have already expressed “reservations” on certain points, and it is foreseeable that in the event of conviction, they will appeal. As far as international tribunals such as the European Court of Human Rights are concerned, I don’t think this is a viable option at present, given that the Holy See is not a party to the relevant treaties.

Extradition from Italy to the Vatican?

In 2020, the Vatican requested the extradition of the accused Cecilia Marogna, but subsequently withdrew its request. Can the Vatican request the extradition of an Italian citizen?

Caridi: The answer to this question is uncertain. The Lateran Treaty does not provide for extradition to be requested for a person who has committed an offense in the Vatican and has subsequently taken “refuge” in Italy, but it does provide for an Italian judge to try the person. On the other hand (and this was the case for the offense of which Ms. Marogna was accused), there are international conventions which (in the opinion of the office of the promoter of justice who requested this measure) would allow extradition to the Vatican.

Italian justice clearly considered that the Lateran Treaty should be applied in this case, and therefore did not proceed with extradition. The solution could probably be different in the case of people present in countries other than Italy who are being prosecuted by the Vatican courts for similar offenses.

The Ali Ağca case

Why aren’t all crimes committed in the Vatican judged by Vatican courts? For example, the trial of Mehmet Ali Ağca, who attempted to assassinate John Paul II in 1981, took place before Italian courts.

Caridi: For the reason I’ve just given: If the accused has left the territory of the Vatican State, or if the Holy See delegates the case to Italian justice, then the trial will take place in Italy. The case of Mehmet Ali Ağca was complicated because there was some doubt as to how he was taken into custody by the Italian police.

He had in fact shot at the Pope a short distance from the border. And he had been detained by the faithful in the square, not by the Swiss Guards, the Vatican gendarmerie, or the Italian police. As I recall, it was an imposing pilgrim from northern Italy and a nun who “tackled” him. In the midst of the turmoil, it wasn’t clear whether this had happened inside or outside the Vatican, and “ad cautelam” [as a precaution, editor’s note], the Holy See decided to delegate.


What about petty crime (pickpocketing, for example) committed inside the Vatican, particularly in St. Peter’s Square?

Caridi: First of all, it’s worth pointing out that St. Peter’s Square, although on Vatican territory, has a special status under the Lateran Treaty. When it is open to the public and there are no celebrations, Italian police forces are responsible for maintaining order. They leave the square if it is closed for celebrations or events. For the rest, jurisdiction lies with the Vatican judges; and historically, much of the work of the Office of the Promoter of Justice and the Vatican’s judicial bodies has focused precisely on these incidents of petty crime.

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