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Italy's Perugia fights sex-and-drugs image from Knox case

Oct 2, 2011, 10:33 a.m.
A women sits near traditional porcelain at the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in downtown Perugia October 1, 2011. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

By Deepa Babington

PERUGIA, Italy (Reuters) - As American student Amanda Knox's court appeal ends, exasperated residents of Perugia wish for a return to the days when the Italian town was known for chocolate, art and history rather a sex and drugs scene made notorious by the murder case.

Set against a lush hilly backdrop, Perugia, with its cobbled alleyways, sunny piazzas and palazzos adorned with griffin statues should be basking in the splendour of its medieval and Etruscan heritage.

Instead, four years of media scrutiny of the case, which saw Knox convicted of the murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher, have exposed a less flattering side of Perugia -- one featuring drug dealers, orgies and drunken foreign students.

"The trial and the media have created this image of Perugia as the 'Ibiza' of Italy which is just absurd," said Marcello Giulietti, 37, a waiter, referring to the Spanish island renowned for its nightclubs and raucous young tourists.

"My own brother, who lives outside Perugia, is now convinced that the town center is dangerous," he said in one of the town's many cafes with marble counters and gleaming espresso machines.

Knox was sentenced to a 26-year jail term for her role in the murder of Kercher during a drug-fueled sexual assault in 2007 along with her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and a third man, Rudy Guede, a small-time Ivorian drug dealer.

Knox, from Seattle, is appealing her sentence and a verdict is expected on Monday.

Perugini, as the town's residents are called, say they cannot wait for the appeal -- and the accompanying media circus of over 400 reporters, camera crews and satellite trucks that have occupied a piazza near the courthouse -- to wrap up and go home.

"For months we've had a representation of us which is more like a caricature," says Perugia's mayor, Wladimiro Boccali.

"We've been damaged by this negative image that we have to deal with when we sell ourselves as a university town. At first blush, we've been described as a town overwhelmed with drugs and extreme sex games."

TWIN CITIES

Even organizers of a local march for peace -- which celebrated its 50th anniversary last week -- complained the Knox trial had rendered their worthy initiative virtually invisible.

Knox and Kercher --- among thousands of foreign students who flock to Perugia -- shared an apartment in the hilltop town when Kercher, a 21-year-old Leeds University student on the European Union Erasmus exchange program, was killed.

As the trial unfolded before television cameras, so did the town's tawdry party scene -- one where free-spirited students spent their study-abroad semesters staggering drunk out of pubs into piazzas, searching for easy sex and partying till dawn.

The media also discovered a trove of party photos posted by Perugia students on the Internet, prompting the Corriere della Sera daily to dub it Italy's Ibiza, eclipsing the town's earlier claim to fame as the home of a famous chocolate factory.

"It's about time this trial came to an end," said newspaper vendor Ugo Isidori. "It has really hurt Perugia because Perugia is not the city that it's been portrayed as. It's not that city -- it's a much better one."

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