Brazil's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the nation's president should decide whether to extradite Italian fugitive Cesare Battisti, a former leftist rebel wanted by his native country for political killings in the 1970s.
In two separate 5-4 votes, the court held first that there is no legal reason to block Battisti's extradition _ and then that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has the final say over the matter.
The decision apparently opens the way for Battisti to remain in Brazil, since Silva himself approved political refugee status for the Italian in January.
Phone calls seeking comment from the presidency and Battisti's lawyers were not immediately returned late Wednesday.
Justice Minister Tarso Genro, who has supported allowing Battisti to remain in Brazil, said there is "a long debate ahead" and a final decision will not be made quickly. The government has not said whether there is a legally defined time frame for Silva to decide.
Battisti escaped from an Italian prison in 1981 while awaiting trial on four counts of murder allegedly committed when he was a member of the far-left Armed Proletarians for Communism.
He was convicted in absentia for the murders of a prison guard and a butcher in the late 1970s. He has not been tried for the two others, involving a police officer and a jeweler.
Battisti, who says he is innocent of the killings, lived in Mexico before moving to France in 1990 and reinventing himself as a mystery writer. Authorities think he arrived in 2004 in Brazil, where he was arrested three years later based on an Italian request to Interpol.
Genro has said Battisti's convictions are flawed because they took place when Italy was trying to show it was cracking down on alleged acts of terrorism.
"I would say that when Mr. Battisti was tried in Italy, the decision was probably appropriate given the historical circumstances of that country," Genro said earlier this year. "Today, any judge would absolve Mr. Battisti for insufficient proof."
On Friday, Battisti sent a letter to Silva announcing he was going on hunger strike, saying he would rather die in Brazil than face judgment in Italy.
Italy's ANSA news agency reported that applause broke out in the lower house of that nation's parliament as lawmakers heard the news of the initial vote to extradite Battisti.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini expressed "great satisfaction" at the decision.
But the second ruling could further inflame tensions between Brazil and Italy over the case and ratchet up pressure on Silva.
Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.