Italy's lower house of parliament approved on Tuesday a bill aimed at curbing fascist propaganda, more than 70 years after the death of wartime dictator Benito Mussolini.
The draft law, proposed by the ruling Democratic Party (PD), follows a politically charged summer, with human rights groups warning of growing racism in Italy in the face of mass immigration across the Mediterranean from Africa.
Under existing laws, pro-fascist propaganda is only penalized if it is seen to be part of an effort to revive the old Fascist Party. The new bill raises the stakes by outlawing the stiff-armed Roman salute, as well as the distribution of fascist or Nazi party imagery and gadgets.
Offenders risk up to two years in jail, with sentences raised by a further eight months if the fascist imagery is distributed over the internet. The legislation now passes to the upper house Senate for further approval.
Opposition parties, including the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the center-right Forza Italia (Go Italy) party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, said the bill posed a threat to freedom of speech.
But Emanuele Fiano, a PD lawmaker who drew up the legislation, dismissed such concerns.
"This bill does not attack personal freedoms but will act as a brake on neo-fascist regurgitation and a return of extreme right-wing ideology," he said.
Mussolini ruled over Italy from 1922 until 1943. He took Italy into World War II on Adolf Hitler's side and passed race laws under which thousands of Jews were persecuted.
Italy was routed by the allied forces and Mussolini, also known as "Il Duce," was executed in 1945.
Mussolini is still admired by a core of supporters on the far-right, and posters using fascist imagery regularly appear on city billboards — most recently in a stylized picture of a white woman being assaulted by a muscular black man.
"Defend her from the new invaders," said the poster, put up by a fringe party called Forza Nuova (New Force). The group was referring to a high-profile rape case last month when four foreigners were accused of gang-raping a Polish tourist.
More than 600,000 migrants, mainly Africans, have come to Italy over the past four years, boosting anti-immigration sentiment in the country and pushing up support for rightist and far-right parties that demand rigid border controls.
Given the political climate, the ruling PD was forced on Tuesday to delay its push to approve a contested law that would grant citizenship to the children of immigrants.
Opposition parties said the law would encourage migrants to try to come to Italy; they claimed victory when the PD announced it was dropping the bill from the Senate schedule this month.
"To approve this bill we need a majority, but we don't have one right now in the Senate," said Luigi Zanda, head of the PD in the upper house of parliament.