Cesare Battisti, living la bella vita.

Brazil-Italy Blood Feud Heats Up

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Henrique Pizzolato's story is made for the movies. Convicted of corruption and appropriating public money in one of Brazil's biggest political payola scandals, the former banker slipped out of his apartment in Copacabana at 4:30 one morning last year with just the clothes on his back, drove to the Paraguayan border and disappeared.

When he was arrested in Italy in February, he answered to a new identity and carried a false passport, both in the name of his brother, who died in 1978. So when Brazil petitioned Italy to send the fugitive back home, it seemed a no-brainer.

Except good screenplays don't always make for good politics. Despite a 25-year-old extradition treaty between the two countries, a court in Bologna on Oct. 28 denied the extradition request and set Pizzolato free.

It wasn't just because Pizzolato, of Italian extraction, has dual citizenship. He walked partly on a technicality (that he'd been tried by the wrong court in Brazil) and partly on a canard (that his life was in danger in Brazil's murderous penitentiaries). No matter that his case was heard by Brazil's highest bench, the designated court for corruption cases, nor that well-heeled convicts with college diplomas are entitled to better lodging under Brazil's peculiar penal code.

Sotto voce, the verdict has been written off to political payback. Which brings us to another made-for-movie script and a second rogue on the run, Cesare Battisti. Like Pizzolato, Battisti was in trouble with the law and fled his native Italy. A former fratello d'armi in the terrorist group Armed Proletarians for Communism, he broke out of jail in 1981 and escaped to Mexico and then France, where he lived freely under the Mitterrand Doctrine (which shielded former guerrillas who had mended their ways and claimed not to have engaged in terrorism), reinventing himself as a crime novelist. Tried in absentia in 1993, an Italian court found him guilty on four separate counts of murder and sentenced him to life.

When the Mitterrand Doctrine expired in 2002, he ran again, slipping into Brazil in 2004, where he has been ever since. Arrested in 2007, Battisti filed for refugee status, alleging political persecution during Italy's "years of lead." Rome filed an extradition request and was denied. In a cockeyed decision, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that Battisti was no political prisoner, legally clearing the way for extradition, but then left the final word to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Enter Justice Minister Tarso Genro, an attorney and loyal member of the ruling left-wing Workers Party, who had defended many a Battisti during the Brazilian dictatorship. On Dec. 31, 2010, his last day of office, comrade Lula flinched and decided against extraditing him, convinced that Battisti was a mark for political vendetta. The decision enraged Italians, as did the Brazilian Supreme Court's subsequent rejection of an appeal by Rome, on the argument that bowing to a foreign power would be a blow to Brazilian "sovereignty."

So much for Justice Ellen Gracie Northfleet's opinion, speaking for the minority, that sovereignty is about "complying with treaties" celebrated between grownup nations, or Article 3 of Brazilian federal law , which denies refugee status to anyone who may have "committed crimes against peace, of war, against humanity, felonies, drug trafficking or participation in terrorist acts."

Brazil has announced it will appeal Pizzolato's case to Italy's high bench in Rome, the Court of Cassation. Until then, Pizzolato is free to sip espresso, far from the hoosegows at home. Maybe he'll even write a crime novel.

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To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net