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Valeria Marchetti – WNN Features
(WNN) Rome, ITALY, WESTERN EUROPE: This story was born of tragedy but has ended in triumph as the rebirth of a special Italian women with personality and endless dignity wins in court. The drama that forever changed the life of 36-year-old former attorney, now active women’s advocate and rights activist, Lucia Annibali happened last autumn in Pesaro, Italy. In a one-on-one interview with WNN Lucia shared she will never forget what happened to her on September 17, 2013.
That was the day she was left partially blind with a facial disfigurement that changed her life and her face forever.
Acid crime is a form of virulent violence that is now on the rise in Italy, and throughout Europe. While a majority of its victims are women, men have also been targets. Injuries from a severe sulfuric acid attack often blind its victims. Sulfuric acid on the skin can also melt the skin down to the bone in 15 minutes or less if quick emergency intervention is not made in time.
Like many other women, Lucia Annibali was purposefully scared for life by someone she once loved.
When she first met Mr. Luca Varani, Lucia did not know her new work colleague, working with her as a fellow attorney, was a dangerous man. Eventually after time had passed this man would also become her stalker. Incredibly though Varani’s plan and successful brutal acid attack against Lucia did not fully succeed. On the contrary, a new and brightly shining level of self esteem for Lucia began the moment she realized the changes she experienced and continues to emerge today.
“In his plan I had to die but I live instead and I am stronger than before,” Lucia recently outlined during her interview.
Domestic violence and acid violence can often found and occur together. Despite new laws working to bring greater justice for women, Domestic violence in Italy continues to be pervasive. One in three women today are considered victims of domestic violence, outlines Italy’s national statistics agency ISTAT. In spite of this, some Italian police departments continue to ignore the important need to report comprehensive public data on the number of cases of violence against women in the region, especially domestic violence cases.
“National criminal justice statistics on domestic violence are not publicly available in Italy,” says the 2012 country report on Italy released by WAVE – Women Against Violence Europe, with a survey project supported by the European Commission and UNFPA – United Nations Population Fund, among other agencies. “As a result, there is no information available on whether any data collected is gender or age disaggregated, or shows evidence of relationship between victim and perpetrator.”
To offset the shortage in documented data inside Italy, WAVE conducted interviews with women on-the-ground revealing the extent that male violence, including both physical and psychological abuse, has impacted women in the region.
“Based on the survey findings, 31% of women ages 16-70 have experienced male violence in their lifetime,” continues the WAVE report. “Applying the rate to the population of women at the time of the survey, 6,743,000 women ages 16-70 would have experienced violence in their lifetime. 23.7% of women have experienced sexual violence and 18.8% physical violence. Women ages 16-34 were found to experience higher rates of violence and intimate partners are responsible for majority of the violent acts. Women continue to fear disclosing sexual violence and nearly 92% of rapes are never reported to the police,” added WAVE.
Across the world sulfuric acid is fairly easy to buy and obtain. It’s also easy to carry as the seemingly innocuous clear liquid can be transported in a small glass bottle before it is uncapped and suddenly thrown on an unsuspecting victim.
Acid attack as a virulent form of violence is not new.
The first case of acid violence was reported in Bangladesh in 1967. Acid violence has now been officially added to the list as one of the latest forms of violent attacks on women. In most locations an attack with sulfuric acid can occur in just seconds causing extreme injury. Giving an attacker, or attackers, an easy chance to run from the scene of a crime police forces often arrive too late to make an arrest.
Lucia and Luca Varani worked together at the beginning as peer intern attorneys in the the Pesaro-based law firm owned by Lucia Annibali’s father. Working side-by-side on legal cases their professional relationship grew into a personal one.
Day-by-day our love grew, shared Lucia. He was a charming man who seemed ‘different’ from the others. But he also often acted as the ‘undisputed leader’ in our relationship, she added.
Charming, self confident and persuasive Luca was not loyal though. After a three year relationship with Lucia, Luca’s double life could no longer remain a secret.
“At the same time he was in a relationship with me he was ‘officially engaged’ with another woman,” said Lucia. “…he still denied his affair with the other woman. I could not bear his lies anymore so I made an end to the relationship with him,” shared Lucia.
In spite of receiving this dangerous ‘wake-up-call’, Lucia did not break up with her boyfriend right away. On-again-and-off-again she finally made a final break in the relationship to live her own life fully in August 2012. But the freedom she expected to feel was haunted by personal dangers that only increased day-by-day, week-by-week.
Too often the moment when a woman stands her ground against abuse she has also placed herself in the line of imminent physical danger. This is the cycle of courage, submission and abuse that works against women worldwide as they back down to accept their abusive relationship and environment. Later when the abuse becomes unbearable they will try again, they say to themselves.
The greatest danger exists when abuse can become deadly.
With courage Lucia was determined to break through the abuse no matter what might happen.
Most women who are targets of acid attack can experience increasing deterioration of their own too often small self-esteem. Following emergency intervention, hospitalization, and surgeries that can last for months. Sent home with a face they now do not recognize it’s only human to be afraid. With glances and judgements of others acid violence survivors can feel totally alone after recovering.
Lucia Annibali’s experience was placed on a different track early as she continues to work publicly to let everyone know that acid violence and abuse of women is not going away fast enough inside Italy. In 2006 ISTAT reported that 96 percent of Italian women had chosen not to report ‘non-partner’ domestic violence incidents to the police. In a ‘man’s world’ in Italy the Italian Penal Code has slowly improved in an attempt to protect women, but encouragement from society for more women to come forward to report crimes safely remains part of the missing link.
Italy’s Law n. 154 put into place on April 4, 2001 4th April 2001 titled “Misure contro la violenza nelle relazioni familiari” (Measures against intra-family violence) specifically addresses domestic violence. To insure that a prosecution can happen the law requires that women must report a domestic violence offense within three months of a ‘first-time’ event. This is to make sure that proceedings can go forward legally.
“When we were together he always repeated to me: ‘Your face is the most beautiful face I ever seen in my life’. His revenge was to kill me but instead he deleted my features, the features he loved so no one else could see again,” Lucia continued.
“It was the beginning of a daily nightmare,” she outlined. “The more I rejected him the more he persevered.”
What might be called one of the most desperate attempts that Varani used, in his attempts to regain Lucia, was to lie about his own physical health. Hoping to inspire Lucia’s compassion, Luca made up a story that he was suffering from a fatal disease. He told Lucia he had a lethal form of leukemia.
“His mother died of leukemia so I tended to trust him” said Lucia.
But Varani’s lies were quickly discovered as Lucia became more determined than ever to stay away from him. According to the local police in Pesaro Luca Varani had become classified as a ‘predator stalker’. As he became more and more rejected his stalking increased to the point where he would constantly follow Lucia. As soon as he realized Lucia wanted to stay out of his life forever, a increasing vendetta was set into motion.
“Stalking…consists of a set of repeated and intrusive behaviors, in the obsessive attempt to make contact and communicate with a targeted victim. It consists of acts of actual controlling behavior, such as, for example, following, spying, showing up at the victim’s workplace, or making unwanted obscene phone [call] even at night,” outlines a report by GVEI – Gender Violence Effects Indicators “National Report: Italia,” created along with the University of Calabria through the European Commission’s Daphne Programme. The Daphne Programme continues today to work to prevent and combat violence against children, young people and women.
The day of the attack that burned Lucia Annibali’s face into something unrecognizable is now called by Lucia “The Year Zero.” This symbolizes for Lucia “A New Start,” something that all women survivors of acid violence know well. Lucia still recalls every detail of that tragic moment when she felt the acid hit her face.
“That day I came back home from my swimming workout, I noticed my kitchen table was not in the right place. Oddly a chair was situated above it. [Then] I felt really scared and I tried to go out. But beyond the door there was a man who threw the acid at me that literally deleted my face,” she said.
At the time Lucia did not know that two men, now verified by the police and the court as Rubin Talaban and Altistin Precetaj, had been hired by Luca Varani to conduct Lucia’s acid attack.
“When the acid got me I felt my face was on fire,” said Lucia.
“The very first thing to do is wash [the injury] with cold water on the body zone hit by the sulfuric acid without scraping it. It’s best if rescuers put [a] victim under a very cold shower,” outlined Dr. Eugenio Provenzano, Chief Head of the Dermatological Department at Annuziata Hospital in the southern city of Cosenza, Italy.
With 30 years experience in the field, Dr. Provenzano clarifies what happened chemically to Lucia’s skin as she was attacked.
“The contact between sulfuric acid and skin is similar to a flammable exposure causing the cutaneous cells to die,” Dr. Provenzano continued. “The patient could [also] be killed by inhaling [the] deadly fumes of the acid,” he added.
400 milliliters of acid was thrown on Lucia’s face. This can create irreparable skin damage.
“It is like a plastic bottle [that melts after being] exposed to a strong source of heat,” outlined Dr. Provenzano.
Receiving prompt first aid by a medical team saved Lucia’s life, added the Doctor who emphasized that a series of plastic surgeries are the only possible chance for most victims to regain a ‘normal’ appearance again. To build back facial tissue that was lost Lucia has received seven plastic surgeries, much of it with the medical teams at Parma University Medical Center Hospital. The work in specialized surgery for Lucia, which included education for 300 medical students, has focused closely on her natural borne beauty.
Both Albanian by birth Lucia’s attackers, Rubin Talaban and Altistin Precetaj, received a 14 year prison sentence in court on March 29, 2014 for their crime. Charged with ordering the assassination attempt against Lucia using acid, Luca Varani is now facing a 20 year prison term which is on appeal.
During her interview Lucia recalled every moment, every day, as she started to re-build her new face. With a number of surgeries, counseling and a new life focus and attitude her strong personality has worked to help her immensely.
“When I was in the hospital I managed to joke with my family and friends about my health condition,” shared Lucia. “At least I was alive. I have learned to love myself more than anyone else,” she added.
Lucia’s incredible attitude in moving forward with her life has been one of the main reasons she has been able to thrive following a harrowing experience, say the experts.
“Life’s traumas can be our deepest resource as a catalyst,” says Italian psychotherapist Roberta Bivio, who specializes with her practice in Milan on women’s rights. “Through her drama Ms. Annibali probably understood that she is more than her face…She is building a new life where she is going to be not a follower but a leader,” added Bivio as she emphasized Lucia’s ability to transcend the change in her physical appearance through a regained psychological strength.
Following her win in court against her attackers Lucia says she has worked to let go of any anger.
“It was a fair verdict, and I’m happy for myself and my family. In spite of the justice that has been accomplished this remains a sad story. There was no need [through a violent act] to go that far,” Lucia said in a personal statement for WNN on April 3, 2014.
On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2014, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano awarded Lucia Annibali with the highest honor in Italy. She received the title of knight and a medal of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic for her courage, fortitude, determination and dignity in the face of personal hardship.
“Today I have more positive feelings than anything else, so I have not pursued anger or resentment. There’s nothing that can repay me, but the important thing is that I am living my new life with a good attitude,” she continued. “Thanks to the police work I’ve received justice. They’ve done an amazing job,” she added.
For now Lucia has moved away from her career as a lawyer and is working full-time as a motivational speaker to spread what she conveys is a very important message: “Never give up. Hold your life in your hand.”
In early March 2014 Speaker Laura Boldrini of Italy’s legislative Lower House, also known as Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, meets with Lucia Annibali in her chamber office. Boldrini is also the former spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a strong advocate for women’s rights as human rights. Talking to the press together both Boldrini and Lucia speak publicly about their dedication to improve the changing face of Italy as it meets the challenge to bring stronger protections for women in the region. This video has been provided by Laura Boldrini’s channel via Youtube.
For more information on this topic:
“Italy – Country Report 2013,” WAVE – Women and Violence Europe, April 2013;
“Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo, Addendum Mission to Italy,” United Nations Human Rights Council, June 2012;
National Report on Italy’s Laws, “Proposing New Indicators: Measuring Violence’s Effects,” Daphne Project with GVEI, July 2007:
“Sulphuric Acid – Management of Eye and Skin Chemical Splashes,” Prevor Toxicology Laboratory and Chemical Risk Management, September 2009;
“Statement by Professor Elsa Fornero – Minister of Labour and Social Policies in Charge of Equal Opportunities at the General Discussion of the 57th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women,” UN Women, March 2013.
Freelance Italy correspondent Valeria Marchetti is a online and broadcasting journalist who studied her trade in London and has worked for numerous news publications including local Rome, Italy newspaper Nero Se Bianco. Marchetti has also worked as a radio reporter for Radio Vaticana at the Vatican in addition to working as a freelance video journalist. Dedicated to investigative reporting on social justice and women Marchetti is currently based in Rome.
Additional researched material for this story has been supplied by WNN.
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