France detains former members of Red Brigades sought by Italy

A protest against the extradition of former Red Brigades members in Paris in July 2008.
A protest against the extradition of former Red Brigades members in Paris in July 2008. © Olivier Laban-Mattei, AFP

French authorities have detained seven Italian nationals who had found refuge in France after they were convicted on terrorism charges in their home country for crimes committed in the 1970s and 80s, the French presidency said on Wednesday.

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A search was underway for three other Italians, the presidency added in a statement.

The Elysée Palace said the decision to detain the 10 former extreme-left militants, out of some 200 people sought by Italy, was in line with a longstanding French policy of granting asylum only to those who have not been convicted of murder.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi welcomed the French action.

"The memory of those barbaric acts is alive in the Italian conscience," his office said in a statement.

Among those captured was Giorgio Pietrostefani, a co-founder of the Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle) group, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in the 1972 murder of Milan police commissioner Luigi Calabresi.

The other six were all members of the Red Brigades, including Marina Petrella, Roberta Cappelli and Sergio Tornaghi, who were all sentenced to life in prison for taking part in various murders and kidnappings, police said.

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said it is now up to a French court to decide whether these people will be extradited to Italy. 

Italy had urged President Emmanuel Macron to extradite extreme-left guerrillas who have been hiding in France for decades to avoid prison convictions.

Hundreds of people were murdered in bombings, assassinations and street warfare by rival far-right and far-left militant factions during a period of social and political turmoil from the late 1960s to early 1980s, known as the Years of Lead.

The Red Brigades were the most notorious and were blamed for hundreds of murders, including the kidnapping and killing of Christian Democrat leader and former premier Aldo Moro in 1978.

'Unspeakable betrayal'

Irène Terrel, a lawyer for five of the seven detained, denounced an "unspeakable betrayal on France's part".

"These people have been living under French protection since the 1980s, they have started a new life here, known to all, with their children and grand-children," Terrel said.

Those arrested included 66-year-old Marina Petrella, whose planned extradition to Italy was halted in 2008 by then-president Nicolas Sarkozy, on health grounds.

During the 1980s, former president François Mitterrand offered left-wing radicals protection from extradition when they fled to France on the condition that they renounced violence and had not been accused of bloodshed.

The so-called "Mitterrand Doctrine" has caused tensions between France and Italy for decades. 

The French presidency said that Macron still upheld the "Mitterrand Doctrine", but that the arrests and extraditions were part of efforts to resolve long-standing tensions. 

"France, also affected by terrorism, understands the absolute necessity of providing justice for victims," the statement said. 

"With this transfer, it is also part of the absolute need to build a Europe of justice in which mutual confidence must be at the centre," it added.

Italy's biggest breakthrough in its efforts to bring fugitive militants to justice came two years ago, when Brazil extradited Cesare Battisti, who was convicted in 1990 in absentia for four murders.

Battisti originally made his home in France, but fled first to Mexico and then Brazil when attitudes in Paris started to change.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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