Italian militant arrested 38 yrs after jailbreak

SANTA CRUZ DE LA SIERRA, Bolivia: A handout picture shows former far-left Italian militant Cesare Battisti after he was arrested late Saturday. — AFP

BRASILIA: Former Italian communist militant Cesare Battisti, sought by Rome for four murders in the 1970s, has been arrested after an international police squad tracked him down on the run in Bolivia where he faces quick extradition to Italy. Italy has repeatedly sought the extradition of Battisti, who lived in Brazil for years under the protection of former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), who is now in prison for corruption.

Battisti, 64, was arrested late Saturday in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Italian interior ministry sources confirmed, where he gave up without a struggle after reportedly being caught disguised in a false beard and moustache. “Italian terrorist Cesare Battisti was detained in Bolivia (Saturday night) and will be soon brought to Brazil, from where he will probably be sent to Italy to serve a life sentence,” tweeted Filipe G Martins, a senior aide on international affairs to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

During Brazil’s recent presidential campaign the far-right Bolsonaro – who took office on Jan 1 – vowed that if elected he would “immediately” extradite Battisti to Italy. In mid-December Brazil’s outgoing president, Michel Temer, signed an extradition order for Battisti after a judge ordered his arrest. By then the Italian ex-militant had disappeared and gone on the run. “Battisti was arrested in the street, unarmed and he didn’t resist, responded to police in Portuguese and showed a Brazilian document confirming his identity,” an Italian interior ministry source said. “Now Italy is waiting for him.”

Italian state police said the arrest had been carried out by a joint team of Italian and Bolivian officers with the help of Italy’s counter-terrorism section. According to the Italian government sources, Battisti was spotted “with certainty” in Santa Cruz last week and an operation was prepared with local authorities. Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported the fugitive, wearing a false beard and moustache, was snatched in the street by a special Interpol squad.

An Interpol team had targeted their search in Santa Cruz before Christmas, closing in on the Italian fugitive in a few of the city’s neighborhoods, the paper said. Italy’s envoy to Brazil fired off a triumphant tweet upon hearing the news. “Battisti has been arrested! Democracy is stronger than terrorism!” ambassador Antonio Bernardini wrote. Battisti could be expelled “within hours” from Bolivian territory, a Bolivian government source told AFP, without giving details where he would be sent.

Italian authorities yesterday dispatched a plane carrying police and secret service agents to Bolivia, the interior ministry said, in apparent preparation for a possible extradition. “Now it’s necessary to work out if Battisti will make a stopover in Brazil or if he will be brought immediately to Italy. This is a problem that will be decided in the coming hours,” the Italian interior ministry source said. Italian President Sergio Mattarella expressed yesterday his satisfaction at Battisti’s arrest. “We hope Battisti is swiftly handed over to Italian justice,” he said.

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini thanked the Italian and foreign police who captured “a delinquent who did not deserve the comfortable life on the beach, and who should spend out the rest of his days in prison”. Bolsonaro’s son, Brazilian lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, tweeted in Italian with a picture of Battisti: “Brazil is no longer the land of bandits. Matteo Salvini, the ‘little gift’ is on its way.” Salvini, head of the rightwing League party which partners the 5-Star Movement in Italy’s ruling coalition, was one of the first top European politicians to endorse Bolsonaro’s election.

Battisti escaped from an Italian prison after being convicted in 1979 of belonging to an outlawed leftist group, the Armed Proletarians for Communism. He was subsequently convicted in absentia of having killed two Italian policemen, taking part in the murder of a butcher, and helping plan the slaying of a jeweller who died in a shootout which left his 14-year-old son in a wheelchair. Battisti admitted to being part of the group but denied responsibility for any deaths.

He reinvented himself as an author, writing a string of noir novels. In 2004 he skipped bail in France, where he had taken refuge. He went to live clandestinely in Brazil until he was arrested in 2007 in Rio de Janeiro. After years in custody, then-president Lula issued a decree – later upheld by Brazil’s Supreme Court – in 2010 refusing Battisti’s extradition to Italy, and he was freed, angering Italy. Battisti, who has a five-year-old Brazilian son, last year told AFP he faced “torture” and death if he were ever to be sent back to Italy. – Agencies

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