Italians were left shocked on Thursday after two men – in separate incidents – publicly set themselves on fire as part of a suicide attempt, following months of pressure from government officials over unpaid taxes.
According to a report by AFP, Giuseppe C., a 58-year-old builder from Bologna, had written suicide notes to the Italian tax agency, his friends and his wife before setting himself alight while sitting in his car in the car park of a former tax agency office.
In his letter, Giuseppe had asked the tax agency for forgiveness and begged them to “leave my wife alone” – especially as a court case for 104,000 euros ($138,000) in unpaid tax and fines was due to be heard against him in the coming days.
Giuseppe was eventually rescued by a traffic officer and taken to the severe burns unit in Parma, said Italian media sources.
In the meantime, as the shock of Giuseppe’s suicide attempt was beginning to sink in across the nation, 110km away, in the city of Verona, another man, who also happened to be a builder, proceeded to set himself on fire in a public street outside a town hall – yelling how he had not been paid for four months.
"He shouted out that he hadn't been paid for four months and poured petrol over himself before setting himself alight. Police raced to put the flames out and he has been taken to hospital," said Pasquale d'Antonio from Verona police.
The second man, the police claimed, was a 27-year-old Moroccan who may have attempted self-immolation in a copycat scenario.
Still, the drastic measures taken by both men came as a massive jolt to the nation, particularly with Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government launching a series of wide-ranging crackdowns on tax evaders in recent months as Italy struggles under a vast debt mountain.
"On fire for tax: the taxman is killing the country," read the front page headline of the Il Giornale daily. "The tragedy of a handyman strangled by the economic crisis,” opined the Repubblica paper.
Former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi added that the situation had highlighted the dire plight of some Italians as the government balances between harsh austerity measures and looking out for its citizens.
“It's a terrible sign of desperation, a single case of distress which sums up a moment of great difficulty," Prodi said on Thursday.
The Italian economy is expected to shrink by 2.2 percent this year as high unemployment and spiralling debt continue to plague the nation. Efforts made by Italy’s technocratic prime minister Mario Monti to reduce the government debt have also led to widespread protests, with Italian trade unions threatening to go on strike unless a compromise can be reached on new labour laws.
"The situation in Italy is very serious and Italians are nearing their limit," said Susanna Camusso, the head of Italy’s biggest union CGIL to Reuters. "Our country is living in fear."