An Italian court in Bergamo has found a senator from the country’s far-right League guilty of defamation aggravated by racial hatred. Roberto Calderoli of far-right League likened Cécile Kyenge – the country’s first black minister and now MEP – to an orangutan during a rally in 2013.

Calderoli argued his comments about Kyenge, who moved to Italy from Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1983 to study medicine, were “playful banter”.

As reported by the Guardian, it is not certain whether he will serve any prison time – the sentence will only become definitive once a process of two appeals has been exhausted, and terms of less than two years are usually suspended.

Nevertheless, Kyenge said the verdict was a crucial result, especially at a time when racism was on the rise.

“It’s a very important signal,” she said. “It means there are still judges who manage to keep watch over the political and public scene, and shows they are also trying to speak in the name of respect and dignity for people [who suffer racist attacks], and for fundamental rights. Words are weighty, and when they come from a politician, they risk having a very negative impact.”