By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Nine illegal immigrants detained in Italy have stitched their lips together with thread from their bedsheets in a protest to demand their release from what they say are intolerable living conditions.
The protest, which started at a center near Rome on Saturday, came days after video emerged of immigrants at another camp standing naked in the cold to be sprayed for scabies. It drew new calls for the closure of detention centers and for changes to immigration laws.
Using a needle improvised from a cigarette lighter, four Tunisians each made a single stitch to join their lips in the middle, Filiberto Zaratti, a lawmaker who visited the protesters, told Reuters.
Five Moroccans later imitated the gesture, according to the centre's manager, speaking on Italian television. The protesters asked to be let out of the center, the manager said.
Italy has borne the brunt of a wave of immigration to the European Union, with more than 40,000 people risking the dangerous sea crossing from northern Africa this year - almost four times as many as last year.
Illegal immigrants can be held for up to 18 months while they await deportation.
The protesters were still able to eat and drink and had been examined by a doctor, said Zaratti, from the opposition Left Ecology and Freedom party, who described living conditions in the centers as shameful.
"That people were forced to such an extreme form of protest reflects their desperation," he said. "These structures should be closed immediately."
Last week, video emerged of naked detainees being sprayed on the island of Lampedusa, first destination of many of the migrants, where hundreds died in a shipwreck in October.
To protest against the living conditions at the Lampedusa center, which has been overcrowded for months, Democratic Party (PD) lawmaker Khalid Chaouki, who was born in Morocco, said on Sunday he had barricaded himself inside.
"You can't stay silent before such a clear violation of the law," Chaouki said on his Facebook page. "The conditions are so bad that they fail to respect the immigrants' basic human rights."
Chaouki said he would stay in the center until "legality is restored".
On Sunday, the immigration spokesman of the main party in the ruling coalition, the center-left PD, said the government would ease immigration laws next year.
Italy's biggest labor union and Rome's mayor have both called for the closure of detention centers.
However, the small New Center Right party that defected from Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia to remain within the government last month has repeatedly said it opposes relaxing immigration rules.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)