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'Populist school' in Italy vows to fight eviction

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Rome (AFP)

The mastermind behind a would-be "gladiator school" for populists set up in a 13th-century Italian monastery vowed Saturday to fight Italy's culture ministry in court over attempts to evict it.

The ministry said Friday it had begun proceedings to oust the school from the sprawling Certosa di Trisulti former monastery near Rome in a blow to former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon who pledged to help finance the project.

Students from across the globe had been readying to learn how to "defend the West" at the far-right political boot camp run by the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), founded by Benjamin Harnwell, Trump's close associate in Europe.

"While the ministry has announced it is initiating proceedings to revoke the lease, the DHI will contest this illegitimate manoeuvre with every resource at its disposal no matter how many years it takes," Harnwell told AFP Saturday.

"And we will win," he said.

The ministry said it had been advised by the state's attorney general there were "all the necessary conditions" for eviction.

Under the previous government, the ministry had awarded custody of the site to the institute for 19 years in February 2018.

But the institute did not have the statutory status, or required experience in managing a historical site, to participate in the government tender, and had not been paying for the site's upkeep since moving in, the ministry now claims.

"I hate those who cheat to get an advantage over others," Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli said Friday, adding that the institute had "got one better over those who had the necessary requisites to be awarded the concession in their place".

- 'Fight in court' -

Harnwell had been preparing to renovate parts of the former monastery, with its frescoed ceilings, Baroque chapel, library, and 18th-century pharmacy, where the monks brewed medicines from herbs gathered in the surrounding woods.

He had hoped to offer a small number of students the first three-week course later this year, and had been in the process of getting planning permission to put bathrooms in the monk cells, redo the sewer system and install Internet access.

More than 1,000 people already expressed an interest, some 80 percent from the English-speaking world, Harnwell said.

Bannon, who since being ousted from the White House spends his days fomenting right-wing populism in Europe, had pledged $1 million to the project.

He appears to be the only benefactor to have stumped up funds so far.

Italy is ruled by an uneasy alliance of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the far-right League, whose leader Matteo Salvini has been supported by Bannon.

The culture minister is a M5S posting: When an investigation into the tender was announced in May, Harnwell said the school was caught in a political crossfire between the endlessly bickering parties.

"The culture ministry might be prepared to surrender to every whim of the extreme left -- the DHI will never do so," Harnwell said Saturday.

The school "will proceed as planned this Autumn, and in the meantime, we relish the opportunity to fight our case in court".

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