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Italy forced to toughen rape laws

ITALY'S government rushed through a decree law yesterday toughening penalties for sex offenders and permitting neighborhood citizen patrols after a spate of high-profile rapes by immigrants sparked national outrage.

Italy's government says data show the number of sexual assaults actually fell last year, but three rapes last weekend in Rome, Milan and Bologna triggered a media frenzy that prompted calls for tougher measures.

Its Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi earlier said the number of sexual assaults fell 10 percent last year compared to 2006 and 2007, which he said showed the government's efforts to improve security were working.

But many Italians are not convinced, with recent rapes grabbing headlines in newspapers and television, often playing up the role of foreigners as perpetrators.

The decree approved by Italy's cabinet sets a mandatory life sentence for rapes that result in death, speeds up trials for sex offenders caught in the act, takes away the possibility of house arrest, and gives free legal assistance to victims.

Mayors will be able to approve citizen patrols, with priority given to retired police and military.

The decree also introduces mandatory life sentences for rapes of minors. It goes into effect immediately but must be approved by both houses of parliament within 60 days.


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