Brazil's top court ruled Wednesday night against extraditing a former leftist rebel from Italy convicted of four murders carried out in the late 1970s in his homeland and ordered him freed from custody.
The Supreme Court's order upheld a December decision by then President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva just before leaving office, an act that angered Italy.
The Italian government has repeatedly called for fugitive Cesare Battisti to be sent home so he can pay for his crimes committed, and warned that failure to do so would create tension between the two countries.
In two 6-3 votes, the Supreme Court justices first denied the extradition request and then ordered Battisti freed.
The court's president, Cezar Peluso, must sent an order to the Ministry of Justice formally requesting Battisti's freedom. The ministry will then determine when he would be released.
When the court started discussing the case Wednesday afternoon the lawyer representing the Italian government, Nabor Bulhoes, said denying extradition would be "a serious breach of legal principles and of the treaty of extradition" that exists between Italy and Brazil.
Battisti's lawyer, Luis Roberto Barroso, said Brazil was morally obligated to turn down Italy's request, noting this country granted amnesty to those charged with political crimes during the military regime that ruled from 1964 to 1985.
"We gave amnesty to agents of the state who tortured youths with electrical shocks, who threw them from planes. And if we granted amnesty then, it is morally legitimate that the president of the republic decide not to punish someone for something we wouldn't have punished him for," Barroso said.
In his last few days in office, Silva decided not to send Battisti to Italy. He cited a clause in Brazil's extradition treaty with Italy that lets each government consider a petitioner's "personal condition."
Over the years, Battisti has said he fears persecution in Italy.
After Silva made his decision, the Supreme Court had to rule whether it was legally supported by the extradition treaty.
The justices determined that a foreign state cannot question a sovereign act of the Brazilian government, in this case the then president's decision to allow Battisti to remain in Brazil.
"The act of the president express reasons of state, and manifests the sovereign will of the Brazilian state," said Justice Ricardo Lewandoski.
The court's ruling concluded a case that started unfolding in 2007 when the activist-turned-mystery writer was detained in Brazil at the request of Interpol.
Battisti had escaped from an Italian prison in 1981 while awaiting trial on four counts of murder, crimes allegedly committed when he was a member of the Armed Proletarians for Communism. He was convicted in absentia in 1990, and sentenced to life in prison.
Battisti moved first to Mexico, then to France in 1990, where he remade himself as an author. He fled to Brazil in 2004 when France changed its policy on giving asylum to former Italian militants who had renounced their convictions.
Over the years, Battisti has restated his claim of innocence, recently in a book called "My Escape," or "Ma Cavale," published in France in 2006.
"I am guilty, as I have often said, of having participated in an armed group with a subversive aim and of having carried weapons. But I never shot anyone," he wrote.
Associated Press writer Juliana Barbassa in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.