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With Bolsonaro win, noose tightens around Italian ‘red terrorist’ Battisti

Ricardo Moraes, Reuters | Cesare Battisti leaves a prison in Brasilia on June 8, 2011, after Brazil's Supreme Court upheld former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's decision not to extradite him.

The fate of former Italian leftist militant Cesare Battisti, whose decades-long life on the run has strained Italy’s relations with France and Brazil, is set to be a test case for Brazilian institutions under new far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.

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“I’ll come get him in person.” Matteo Salvini, Italy’s firebrand interior minister and deputy PM, now has two good reasons to visit Brazil. One is to congratulate his soulmate Jair Bolsonaro on his momentous election win. The other is to fetch the fugitive Italian “red terrorist” who has been living there for the past 14 years.

The fugitive is Cesare Battisti, a 63-year-old leftist militant-turned-novelist, who has been convicted in absentia of taking part in four murders in Italy in the 1970s, on charges he has always denied.

Italy has repeatedly sought his extradition, fuming at the protection afforded to Battisti by Brazil’s former leftwing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and then confirmed by the country’s Supreme Court. But Lula is now himself in jail on corruption charges, and Brazil’s new president-elect has vowed to extradite Battisti, “beloved of Brazil’s left”, as a gift to Italy.

“The gift is on its way!” wrote Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a member of Brazil’s Congress, in a tweet to Salvini on Monday, thanking the Italian politician, who leads the anti-immigrant League party, for his support during the far-right candidate’s vitriolic campaign.

“I can’t wait to meet the new president Bolsonaro,” Salvini promptly replied, adding: “I will be glad to come to Brazil in person, also to go fetch the red terrorist Cesare Battisti and carry him back to an Italian jail.”

Salvini’s colleague in government Alfonso Bonafede, the justice minister, said his ministry has been working on the case with Brazilian authorities for months, “waiting for an event that would change things, such as Bolsonaro’s election". He added: “Cesare Battisti must return to Italy. […] We owe it to the families of his victims. We owe it to our country.”

‘Years of Lead’

A former member of a leftist militant group, Battisti escaped from an Italian jail in 1981 while awaiting trial. He was subsequently convicted in absentia of killing two police officers, taking part in the murder of a butcher, and helping to plan the slaying of a jeweler who died in a shoot-out that left his 13-year-old son in a wheelchair. The four murders took place between June 1978 and April 1979.

Battisti has admitted to being part of the outlawed Armed Proletarians for Communism group that was active during the years of far-left and far-right terrorism in Italy, known as the “Years of Lead”. But he has repeatedly denied responsibility for any deaths.

Under the so-called “Mitterrand doctrine”, named after former French president François Mitterrand, Battisti and other Italian fugitives found refuge during the 1980s in France, which argued that Italian anti-terror laws denied suspects a fair trial.

Max Rossi, Reuters | Protesters call for Battisti's extradition outside the Brazilian embassy in Rome on January 4, 2011.

Battisti lived in France as a successful crime novelist until 2004, when he skipped bail amid fears a new French administration would extradite him to Italy, fleeing first to Mexico and then Brazil. He was arrested in Rio in 2007 and then freed four years later thanks to a decree passed by Lula – on his last day in office – and later upheld by Brazil’s Supreme Court.

The former communist militant has said he faces "torture" and death if he is ever sent back to Italy. Amid talk of Brazilian authorities reviewing his case, he appeared to be again looking for a new home last year when he was briefly detained for attempting to cross the border with Bolivia carrying a large quantity of undeclared foreign currency.

Who has final say?

Following the election to the presidency of an apologist of Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship who abhors the left, the Battisti dispute presents a test case of Bolsonaro’s future relationship with the judiciary.

In his victory speech on Sunday, the president-elect vowed to uphold Brazil’s constitution. But critics have cast doubt on his pledge, pointing to his truculent campaign promises to “banish” left-wing rivals from Brazil or leave them to “rot in jail”.

Reached for comment by AFP, Battisti said a decision on his case would not be in Bolsonaro’s hands. "I'm not worried because it's not the executive who decides that right now. It's the judiciary," he said, recalling that the Supreme Court must rule on his case.

Battisti’s extradition presents Brazil with a “legal headache”, wrote Italy’s Rai News website on Monday, noting the lack of a precedent determining whether a sitting president can overrule a predecessor on such matters. The fact that the fugitive Italian has a five-year-old Brazilian son “further complicates his extradition”, the website added.

In March of this year, Brazil’s Prosecutor-General Raquel Dodge argued that a decision on the Battisti case must be “political”, meaning the executive should have the final word. But when a Supreme Court judge was asked to rule on Italy’s latest extradition request in October 2017, he blocked it “temporarily” pending an examination by the full court – which has been postponed indefinitely.

Salvini, it seems, may have to sit through some more legal wrangling before he can pick up his “gift”.

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