Following a 1981 prison escape, years of international squabbling, and a recent asylum reversal, police in Brazil have arrested a famed Italian writer and former leftist militant who had been sentenced by an Italian court to life in prison following a decades-old murder conviction.
Cesare Battisti, who has been living in Brazil for over a decade, was charged in connection with four homicides, carried out by the Armed Proletarians for Communism (PAC) in 1978 and 1979. The 60-year-old was released later on Thursday in Sao Paulo after his attorney lodged an appeal with the court to suspend the deportation order prescribed by federal judge Adverci Rates Mendes de Abreu. The judge ruled on March 3 that Battisti had violated Brazil's residency laws and that, "as a convicted murderer in his own country, he was not entitled to remain [in Brazil]."
The judge's recent decision reverses an earlier ruling by former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — commonly known as Lula — granting Battisti asylum.
Battisti would be shipped off to either France or Mexico if he is deported, at which point he could then be extradited to Italy.
Italy's Years of Lead
While Battisti has admitted being a member of the far-left PAC — a group known for following the principles of direct democracy and carrying out violent activism — he has always maintained he is innocent of the killings.
Speaking to French daily Le Monde in 2011, Battisti said that he took "full responsibility for his political and military activities," but that he had "never killed anyone" during his militant years. He described himself as a mere "cog" in the machine made up of "the innumerable far-left organizations that were battling the state at the time."
The PAC was founded in the late 70s, during the Years of Lead, a period of socio-political unrest that started in Italy in the late 60s and spread across Europe. The period was marked by two decades of violent political activism, including kidnappings and assassinations of government figures and legal officials, as well as large-scale attacks carried out by extremist left-wing groups. It was also a time of violent police repression and "false flag" attacks — strikes that were specifically engineered to hide the real organization behind them.
PAC was branded a terrorist organization by the Italian government in 1993.
At the height of its activity, PAC committed many armed robberies, attacking dozens of stores and banks between 1976 and 1979. The organization was convicted of forming what the court called "an armed group," and committing "weapons trafficking," and "hold-ups." The group was also found guilty of carrying out four murders from 1978 to 1979. According to Italian courts, Battisti was personally responsible for killing two of the victims — a prison guard and a police officer, allegedly executed with a gunshot to the neck.
The group also murdered Pierluigi Torregiani, a Milan jeweler, and Lino Sabbadin, a butcher from the town of Veneto, to punish the two men for killing thieves who had tried to rob them. According to Milan Deputy Prosecutor Armando Spataro, the group's motive for the killings was "to teach people to allow the deeds of the proletarians, who are forced to steal to survive."
In his 2011 Le Monde interview, Battisti claims he left the group following the 1978 execution of Christian Democrat party leader Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades paramilitary group. Battisti said he quit the group two months after Moro's assassination — an incident regarded by many as the culmination of the Years of Lead — before the four murders took place.
Battisti was arrested in Italy in 1979 and sentenced to 12-and-a-half years in prison for participation in an "armed group." Fellow PAC members helped him escape from Frosinone prison in 1981, at which point he fled to Paris and then Mexico.
Battisti returned to France in 1990, after socialist president François Mitterrand pledged not to extradite some 300 "non-violent leftist activists." Despite being sentenced in absentia by the Italian court, Battisti reinvented himself in France as an author, embarking on a prolific writing career.
Battisti became something of a cause célèbre among French leftist intellectuals and politicians, who regarded Italy's "terrorist" as no more than a "socialist activist."
Rome and Paris continued to fight over Battisti until 2004 when France finally accepted Italy's extradition request. Then justice minister Dominique Perben argued that France had repealed the "Mitterrand Doctrine" on granting asylum to left-wing Italian activists.
Battisti fled to Brazil after a Paris appeals court validated the extradition order in 2004, claiming in later years he had been helped by French intelligence services. After living as a fugitive for several years, he was finally arrested in Rio de Janeiro in 2007.
A 2007 decision to extradite Battisti was overturned in 2009 by then Justice Minister Tarso Genro, and in 2010, the Brazilian government accepted Battisti's political asylum request — a decision subsequently contested by the Supreme Court.
President Lula decided not to extradite Battisti on his last day in office, in December 2010, and in 2013, Brazil's supreme court upheld Silva's decision to grant asylum to Battisti.
The national immigration council of Brazil has since given Battisti permanent resident status — a status that is today being challenged by prosecutor Mendes de Abreu.
The judge has said she does not want Battisti extradited to Italy, because such a move would be at odds with former president Lula's decision.
FollowMélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho