Brasilia: Italian ex-militant Cesare Battisti walked free early Thursday from Brazil's Papuda maximum-security prison after the country's high court denied Italy's request to extradite him.
Brazil's Supreme Court rejected the extradition to Italy of the former far-left militant and ordered his immediate release in a case that has heightened tensions with Rome.
Italy immediately denounced the ruling with a cabinet minister calling it "the umpteenth humiliation" of the victims of Cesare Battisti, who has been sentenced to life for the murders of four persons in the 1970s.
The nine-member court ruled by a 6-3 majority that former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's decision to deny the Italian extradition request and authorize Battisti to remain in Brazil complied with a bilateral treaty.
The judges also said that Battisti, 56, who has been in jail fighting extradition for the past four years, should be immediately freed. Chief justice Cezar Peluso then signed documents authorising Battisti's release.
Battisti, a member of the radical Armed Proletarians for Communism (PAC) group, became an international fugitive after escaping from an Italian jail in 1981 and spent decades evading justice living in Mexico, France and Brazil.
He was convicted in his absence by an Italian court in 1993 for the murders of four people in the 1970s, charges he has denied, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Brazil granted him political refugee status in January 2009, in a move that effectively halted extradition proceedings.
But eight months later, the Supreme Court nullified that decision and said it favoured extraditing him to Italy after all, at the same time ruling that Lula should be the final arbiter.
In late December 2010, Lula, in his last moments in office, enraged Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi by denying the extradition.
The Italian government appealed, and Brazil's nine Supreme Court justices discussed the legality of Lula's decision on Wednesday. The court also ruled by 6-3 that Italy did not have legal standing to challenge Lula's decision.
"At stake here is national sovereignty. It is as simple as that," said Judge Luiz Fux to justify his vote against Battisti's extradition and in favour of his release.
Battisti has insisted that he is innocent.
One of his lawyers, Renata Saraiva, told the daily O Globo he was "very anxious" as he awaited the ruling, taking anti-depressant medication to handle the stress.
But the case has created intense friction with Rome, which has pressed for Battisti's extradition.
In Rome, Youth Minister Giorgia Meloni declared: "The decision by the Brazilian supreme judges not to authorize the extradition of a criminal like Battisti, just like that of then-president Lula, represents the umpteenth humiliation for the families of his victims."
Meloni, quoted by ANSA news agency, said the latest move was "a slap in the face for Italian institutions, an act unworthy of a civilised and democratic nation”.
First Published: Thursday, June 09, 2011, 13:49