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Italy court blocks Bannon-linked plans for populist academy

Steve Bannon, former President Donald Trump's former chief strategist, talks about the approaching midterm election during an interview with The Associated Press, Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018, in Washington. Bannon told the Associated Press that if the elections were held today, he believed the GOP would lose 35 to 40 seats and the House of Representatives, but argued there was time to turn that around. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

ROME (AP) — Italy’s top administrative court has ruled against a conservative think tank affiliated with former White House adviser Steve Bannon over its use of a hilltop monastery to train future populist leaders, a decision Bannon denounced Tuesday as a politically motivated “joke.”

The Council of State ruled Monday that the Culture Ministry was correct in cancelling the concession it had given to the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, or Human Dignity Institute, the ANSA news agency and RAI state television reported. The ruling overturned an earlier decision by a regional administrative tribunal that had sided with the institute.

Buoyed by Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and the rise of nationalist sentiment in Europe, Bannon and the institute had launched plans to establish an academy to train populists and nationalists at the 13th century Trisulti monastery, an abbey surrounded by a forest in the province of Frosinone south of Rome.

But local residents objected and ultimately the Culture Ministry, under the leadership of the center-left politician Dario Franceschini, sought to revoke the lease, alleging a host of irregularities that the institute denied.

The center-left leader of the Lazio region, Nicola Zingaretti, hailed the Council of State decision.

“Steve Bannon and the sovereigntists must leave the Trisulti,” Zingaretti said on Facebook, vowing to work with the Culture Ministry to “return this marvelous place to the people.”

The local Catholic bishop praised the decision, saying the Council of State had done the right thing by returning the monastery “to the people of God and to the entire community.”

In a statement reported by the Avvenire newspaper of the Italian bishops conference, Bishop Lorenzo Loppa said the diocese would now work with the community to find a new life for this “monastic jewel,” suggesting it could be used as the headquarters of a foundation.

Bannon said Tuesday the court decision was a politically motivated “joke” that was befitting of a developing country. He labeled the Italian government “corrupt, incompetent and broke” and unable to care for the monastery, which he vowed to fight to keep. It is unclear, however, what further legal recourse is available.

Benjamin Harnwell, founder and president of the institute, had previously argued the institute was being targeted because of its affiliation with Bannon and its support for Italy’s right-wing leader Matteo Salvini and his “heroic blockade of the illegal migration into Italy.”

Dignitatis Humanae, which says its goal is to defend the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western civilization, had counted on the high-profile support of conservative American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was named honorary president of the institute in February 2019. But Burke resigned in June of that year, saying in a statement he was stepping down because the institute had “become more identified with the political program of Mr. Bannon.”

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