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Cesare Battisti: A Terrorist’s Path to Freedom

3:00 PM, Jun 17, 2011 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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On June 2, the convicted Italian terrorist Cesare Battisti walked out of a Brazilian prison a free man. He did so after Brazil’s supreme court upheld the decision of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to refuse to extradite Battisti to Italy. A member of the left-wing terror group Armed Proletarians for Communism (PAC) during Italy’s blood-ridden “years of lead” in the 1970s, Battisti had been on the run from Italian justice for nearly thirty years, since escaping from a prison near Rome in October 1981.

Cesare Battisti

Cesare Battisti

In 1988, a Milan court convicted Battisti in absentia on four counts of murder or accessory to murder for his role in a series of four PAC “hits” in 1978 and 1979. Two of the victims were shopkeepers, a butcher and jeweler, and two were police officers. In two of the cases, Battisti himself is supposed to have fired the fatal shots.

From 1990 until 2004, after a period in Mexico, Battisti lived in relatively comfortable exile in France, benefitting from the so-called “Mitterrand doctrine.” The doctrine, which is commonly dated to pronouncements made by French president François Mitterrand in 1985, offered a safe haven in France to left-wing Italian terrorists who had “renounced violence.” A 1991 Italian extradition request for Battisti was refused by the French courts. Although never formalized in any law, the “Mitterrand doctrine” remained de facto French policy even after the “center-right” candidate Jacques Chirac succeeded the socialist Mitterrand as president in 1995.

But in 2004, the commitment of French authorities to upholding the doctrine appeared to be wavering. In February of that year, Cesare Battisti was arrested in Paris following a renewed Italian extradition request. On June 30, a French court approved the request, and two days later, Chirac indicated publicly that he was not opposed to the extradition. Battisti absconded yet again. In an August 19th letter released by his lawyers, he announced that he was going into hiding but that he would not leave France. “I wouldn’t know how,” Battisti wrote. “It’s my country.” In fact, he fled to Brazil. In March 2007, he would be arrested in Rio de Janeiro in a joint Franco-Brazilian sting operation.

In the intervening years, Battisti had become a cause célèbre of the French left. Following his February 2004 arrest in Paris, the then chair of the French Socialist party, François Hollande, would visit Battisti in prison, in order to “make clear [his] disapproval.” Alluding to the “Mitterrand doctrine,” Hollande insisted that France had to “keep its word.” Hollande is the current frontrunner to obtain the Socialist nomination for the French presidential elections in 2012. The city of Paris, under the leadership of Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë, likewise expressed its support.

Three years later, in May 2007, it was the turn of globetrotting French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy to visit Battisti in prison—this time in Brazil. After the Brazilian supreme court ruled in a first decision that there were no legal grounds to prevent Battisti from being extradited to Italy, “BHL” penned an impassioned letter to the Brazilian president, appealing to him to refuse Battisti’s extradition. “Mister President, Dear Lula,” Lévy wrote,

...I would be dismayed – there are many of us in the world who would be dismayed – to see “our” Lula doing damage to the tradition of welcoming refugees that is the pride of your country. Extraditing Battisti would create a dangerous precedent. Not extraditing him would show the world – which has its eyes fixed on Brazil and on you – that there are principles that neither reasons of national interest nor the logic of cold monsters can purchase.

Another prominent French Socialist to rally to Battisti’s cause was a certain Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Following Battisti’s arrest in Rio, Strauss-Kahn came out explicitly against his extradition. Adopting what had become the standard line of the pro-Battisti activists, Strauss-Kahn objected to the fact that Battisti had been convicted in absentia and demanded that Italy change its laws in order to permit a new trial. Never mind that Battisti was convicted in absentia because he was a fugitive.

“In the meanwhile, Cesare Battisti should not be extradited,” Strauss-Kahn concluded.  Alluding to the imminent 2007 French presidential elections and the candidacy of then French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, he added, “In the current context of the presidential elections, I cannot help thinking that there is a certain political calculation involved in this operation.” It should be noted that once in office, Sarkozy would himself prevent the extradition to Italy of another “reformed” terrorist and convicted murderer: the former Red Brigade member Marina Petrella. He thus, in effect, reinstated the “Mitterrand doctrine.”

The Brazilian president Lula waited until December 31, 2010, the very last day of his presidency, to announce his decision: Battisti would not be extradited. The purely political nature of the decision could hardly have been more flagrant. As the French left-wing daily Libération has noted, Lula “did not even bother to keep up appearances.” Despite the existence of an extradition treaty between Italy and Brazil, he justified his choice by citing fears that Battisti could suffer “persecution or discrimination” in his homeland. The argument had already been rejected by the Brazilian supreme court in denying Battisti refugee status.

But the Battisti case is not only of interest for the remarkable indulgence toward a convicted terrorist displayed by the left-wing establishments in both France and Brazil. It is also of interest for strictly practical reasons related to the recent arrest and pending trial of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York. As noted above, in February 2004 Battisti was arrested in Paris. Sometime in August, after a French court gave a favorable ruling on the Italian extradition request, he fled the country. What happened in the meanwhile to make his flight possible?

Well, on March 4, barely three weeks after his arrest, the very same French court decided that Battisti had given “adequate guarantees” that he would return to court and ordered him released under conditions reminiscent of those from which Strauss-Kahn is now benefitting while he awaits trial in New York. “I find what is happening to me inconceivable,” Battisti pleaded before the court in a March 4 hearing. “I don’t understand. I have never tried to flee French justice, nor have any of us. Everything that is happening to me is absurd….” The court apparently sympathized. Battisti was required to check in with the police once a week.

But just in case his assurances were not to be trusted, after all, he was also placed under surveillance. A single employee of a private security firm paid by the accused is supposed to keep watch on Dominique Strauss-Kahn. By contrast, a whole team of French police specialists monitored Battisti’s movements. According to police documents obtained by the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, his phone was also tapped.  Nonetheless, per the reconstruction of Le Nouvel Observateur, on Tuesday, August 17, Cesare Battisti walked into a Parisian subway station and slipped the French police surveillance team for good.

More troublingly still, if Battisti’s own account is to be believed, French authorities sympathetic to his cause actually helped arrange his escape. “There was a great popular and intellectual movement in my favor,” Battisti recalled in an interview that he gave to the Brazilian magazine ISTOÉ in early 2009, “At the time, there were also members of the government, whose names I can’t cite, that mobilized to help us, the Italian refugees. They had trouble accepting that France would go back on its word.” According to Battisti, it was a French intelligence officer who recommended that he flee to Brazil and who provided him a fake passport to facilitate his travel.

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work on Facebookhere or at www.trans-int.com.

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