Prosecutors in Italy are being urged to drop a prosecution against six gay rights activists charged by carabinieri, the country’s militarised police force, because they kissed during a demonstration.

The police conducted an identity check on the three men and three women after they held a spontaneous, uncoordinated protest against an anti-gay-marriage group calling itself the Sentinelle in Piedi, or Standing Sentries, in Perugia, capital of the Umbria region, in central Italy. Two of the activists are members of Omophalus while four belong to Bella Queer, both local Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights groups. All six are accused of disturbing the peace, while four are also accused of holding an unlawful demonstration.

‘The charges would be laughable if they didn’t reflect exactly the anti-gay sentiment the activists are fighting against,’ said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. ‘The public prosecutor should withdraw these charges immediately.’

The public prosecutor acted on the basis of a subsequent police report that accused two of the men of engaging in ‘a long and passionate kiss on the mouth … in front of many families with children and adolescents many of whom are minors, leaving passersby disgusted by such a demonstration.’ The report also includes a description of the protesters’ clothing (including colourful shirts and a feather boa) and states that one of the activists made noise with a small tambourine.

The Sentinelle began silent demonstrations in Italian towns and cities in 2013 to express opposition to same-sex marriage and efforts to extend bias-crime protections to those targeted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The members stand silently in plazas, holding books or praying.

‘Gay men and lesbian women kissing in public is not a crime,’ Sunderland said. ‘The activists’ actions are clearly protected by their right to peaceful protest.’

Recognising same-sex marriage

The protests and counter-protests come at a time when the debate in Italy over same-sex marriage and civil unions has heated up. Several cities, including Grosseto, Bologna, and Naples, have begun registering same-sex marriages first contracted abroad. Earlier this month, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano ordered all his representatives to require local authorities to withdraw any such measures and, in the case of inaction by the local authorities, to use their powers to officially annul them – but Milan and Rome started registering same-sex marriages in defiance of the circular.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said his government is preparing draft legislation to create civil unions for same-sex couples, while a bill for civil unions drafted by a member of parliament from Renzi’s Democratic Party has already been submitted to the Senate Justice Commission for examination. Flavio Romani, president of Arcigay, explained that LGBT groups in Italy aspire to full marriage equality, but that the civil unions as envisioned in the existing draft legislation would provide virtually the same rights and duties as marriage under Italian law.