Italy-Brazil feud over extradition heats up

AP News
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Posted: Jun 09, 2011 12:40 PM
Italy-Brazil feud over extradition heats up

An Italian fugitive convicted of four murders in 1970s left prison a free man Thursday after Brazil's top court barred his extradition, sparking outrage in Italy and vows to pursue him in the International Court of Justice.

Cesare Battisti was released from a Brazilian prison and taken to a hotel in Brasilia, according to the office of his lawyer, Luis Roberto Barroso.

The attorney told reporters he planned to go to the Justice Ministry and begin getting permanent residency papers for the Italian.

In Italy, anger swept across the political spectrum, with President Giorgio Napolitano saying he "deplored" the decision and backing government actions aimed at pushing Brazil to honor its agreements with Italy.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi said the court's decision "wounds our sense of justice and also those who have suffered in those cases."

A group representing victims of terror urged Italy to refuse to participate in the next soccer World Cup in Brazil, while others called for a boycott of Brazilian products.

Italy's Foreign Ministry said it intends to press ahead with all legal means to obtain the extradition of Cesare Battisti, a former member of a militant Italian leftist group, including an appeal to the international court in the Hague.

Brazil's Supreme Court on Wednesday night upheld a December decision by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to grant asylum to the Italian, who claims he is innocent of the murders. Battisti 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.

The Italian government has repeatedly called for Battisti to be sent home so he can pay for his crimes, and warned that failure to do so would create tension between the two countries.

In two 6-3 votes, Brazil's Supreme Court justices first denied Italy's extradition request, then ordered Battisti freed.

The Brazilian Bar Association said the Supreme Court defended the country's sovereignty. "It is a tradition of our diplomacy to not accept outside interference," it said.

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 its 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, Brazil's 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. "The act of the president expresses 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.

After escaping Italy, 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," ("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.

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AP reporter Marco Sibaja contributed from Brasilia.