Brazil, Italy fight over 'terrorist'

2010-12-31 20:52

Brasilia - Brazil and Italy started a furious diplomatic row on Friday after Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva turned down an extradition demand for Cesare Battisti, an Italian whom Rome considers a "terrorist" for murders committed in the 1970s.

Italy immediately recalled its ambassador to Brazil to protest the decision, which it termed "seriously offensive" - and which Lula made on his last day in office.

Brazil shot back, accusing Italy of being "impertinent" for criticising the judgement of its head of state.

The war of words was likely to escalate as Brasilia and Rome dug into their positions in the case.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim announced Lula's decision, reading from a prepared statement to reporters.

"The president today took the decision to not agree to the extradition of Italian citizen Cesare Battisti on the basis of a report by the attorney general," Amorim said.

Although he said it was not meant as an "affront" to Italy, he took Italy's government to task for warnings it made on Thursday, ahead of the decision, that it would see a refusal to extradite Battisti as "absolutely incomprehensible and unacceptable".

That tone was "very strange" and "impertinent", Amorim said.

Worst case scenario

But indignation was also running high in Italy's capital.

"The worst case scenario has happened," Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa told the ANSA news agency, adding that Italy would "leave no stone unturned" until Brazil "backs down on this unjust and seriously offensive decision".

The man at the center of the dispute, Battisti, 56, has spent three decades on the run in France, Mexico and finally Brazil, where he has been in jail since 2007 pending the result of the Italian extradition request.

Lula's government last year tried to declare Battisti a refugee, prompting Rome to withdrew its ambassador in protest.

But Brazil's Supreme Court overturned that designation as illegal, saying the crimes imputed to the Italian were not political in nature.

The court said a bilateral extradition treaty applied, but left it to Lula to decide the outcome.

Still, Battisti was not freed on Friday.

The head of the Supreme Court, Cezar Peluso, told reporters he and his fellow justices would verify the legality of Lula's decision when the court resumes in February after a vacation recess.

Battisti, who made a new career as a crime novelist while living in France, has said he is innocent of the murder charges against him.

He claims he is the victim of persecution in Italy and risks being killed if returned there.

Rome considers Battisti a "terrorist" for his membership in the Armed Proletariat for Communism, a radical and armed left-wing group that killed several people in the 1970s.

He was found guilty for the group's 1978-1979 murders of a prison guard, a special investigator of terrorist organisations, a butcher and a jeweler, and in 1993 was sentenced in his absence to life in prison.

After living in France for 14 years, then fleeing to Brazil in 2004 with the help of sympathisers - among them, he said, French intelligence agents - Battisti was arrested in Rio de Janeiro in 2007 and transferred to the Brasilia jail.

The burgeoning row will be the first diplomatic challenge Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, will face after taking over the presidency on Saturday.

A former Marxist militant who joined Lula's Workers Party, Rousseff herself spent two years being tortured in jail in the early 1970s for fighting Brazil's then military dictatorship.