Europe Italian fugitive heads home to serve life term for murder

Italian fugitive heads home to serve life term for murder

Italian Cesare Battisti attends the presentation of his book about his experience in prison in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Italy sent an aircraft to Bolivia on Sunday Jan. 13, 2019,

A left-wing Italian militant who was convicted of murder three decades ago is heading home to serve a life sentence, after his life as a celebrity fugitive came to an abrupt end with his arrest in Bolivia by a team of Interpol agents.

Cesare Battisti was handed over to Italian custody late Sunday in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where he was located by Italian intelligence agents after using one of his mobile devices. Italy sent a government aircraft to pick him up, and the plane left late Sunday bound for Rome.

“It is done,” Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte tweeted. “The plane has just taken off from Santa Cruz direct for Rome with Cesare Battisti on board.”

A photo released by the Italian interior ministry showed Battisti — wearing the same blue T-shirt he was wearing when he was arrested late Saturday — sitting in the aircraft cabin with a gray blanket over his lap.

He was due to arrive in Rome on Monday afternoon and be immediately transferred to the capital’s main Rebibbia prison, a remarkably quick finale to one of Italy’s most drawn-out efforts to bring a fugitive to justice.

The 64-year-old, who became a successful author during his life on the run, had lived openly in Brazil and France for years and enjoyed the protection of left-wing governments on both sides of the Atlantic, much to the consternation of a succession of Italian governments. But Brazil’s outgoing president signed a decree last month ordering his extradition, apparently sparking Battisti’s latest effort to flee to Bolivia, where he had tried unsuccessfully to obtain political asylum.

Battisti escaped from an Italian prison in 1981 while awaiting trial on four counts of murder allegedly committed when he was a member of the Armed Proletarians for Communism. He was convicted in absentia in 1990 and faces a life term for the deaths of two police officers, a jeweler and a butcher.

He acknowledged membership in the group but denied killing anyone and painted himself as a political refugee who would face certain torture or death in Italy.

After initially fleeing to Mexico, he then went to France, where he joined dozens of left-wing Italian militants who enjoyed official protection from the French government.

Like Battisti, they fled Italy during that nation’s “years of lead,” a bloody and turbulent era during the 1970s and 1980s when militants on the left and right carried out bombings, assassinations and other violent acts to try to bring down the Italian government.

After political winds shifted in France, Battisti fled to Brazil in 2004 to avoid being extradited. He was arrested in Rio de Janeiro in 2007, prompting the Italian government to request that he be handed over. But then Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva granted him political asylum in 2010.

Battisti was eventually released from jail but was arrested again in 2017 after he was caught trying to cross the Brazil-Bolivia border carrying the equivalent of about $7,500 in undeclared cash. He was released after a few days.

As a result of that incident, Brazilian Supreme Federal Tribunal Justice Luiz Fux said in December that Interpol had issued a request for Battisti’s arrest on tax evasion and money laundering charges, leading him to issue a Brazilian warrant. Based on that, outgoing Brazilian President Michel Temer signed the decree ordering the fugitive’s extradition.

Brazil’s new right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, vowed to follow through with his extradition, hailed Battisti’s arrest and denounced da Silva’s government for having granted the Italian asylum.

“Finally, there will be justice for the Italian assassin and partner of ideas of one of the most corrupt governments to ever exist,” Bolsonaro tweeted Sunday in a reference to da Silva’s Workers’ Party.

Bolivia’s public defender, David Tezanos, said Battisti formally requested asylum in Bolivia on Dec. 21, but he had not received a response from the leftist government of President Evo Morales. Tezanos said Battisti’s rights were being violated with his hasty expulsion.

Brazil’s foreign and justice ministries said in a joint statement that Battisti “will leave Bolivia direct to Italy to serve his life sentence.”

The statement was significant since under Brazilian law people extradited to serve life sentences must have their sentences capped at 30 years — a concession rejected by Italian officials on Sunday in insisting that Battisti serve his full term. By capturing Battisti in Bolivia and avoiding his return to Brazil, Italy wasn’t bound to observe Brazil’s cap on the sentence.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini praised Bolivian police and Brazil’s new government for following through on the fugitive’s case. He called Battisti a “delinquent who doesn’t deserve to live comfortably on the beach but rather to finish his days in prison.”