Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Friday turned down an extradition demand for an Italian ex-militant, Cesare Battisti, considered a “terrorist” by Rome for murders committed in the 1970s.
The decision, announced by Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, came on Lula’s last day in office, and in the wake of warnings from Italy that it would see such a move as “unacceptable.”
“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 told reporters.
“This type of judgement does not constitute an affront from one country to another,” he said, reading from an official statement.
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.
It said a bilateral extradition treaty should apply, but that Lula would have to make a final decision.
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, and claims he is the victim of “political” persecution in Italy.
On Thursday, Italy warned a refusal to extradite Battisti would be “absolutely incomprehensible and unacceptable.”
Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said he would back “boycott initiatives” against Brazil, and called a refusal by Lula “a huge wound in bilateral relations.”
Italy has reacted angrily to suggestions Battisti faced persecution if extradited.
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 in absentia for the group’s 1978-1979 murders of a prison guard, a special investigator of terrorist organizations, a butcher and a jeweller, and in 1993 was sentenced to life in prison.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has vowed to “leave no stone unturned to obtain Battisti’s extradition.”
Battisti’s life on the run from Italian authorities has taken him across several countries and seen him start a new career as a writer.
Initially jailed in Italy in 1981 on charges of belonging to an armed group, Battisti escaped that same year and fled to France then Mexico.
When France adopted a law giving refuge to repentant militants, he returned to that country and started a new career as a successful crime novelist.
Following Italy’s murder conviction against him and France’s decision to no longer protect him, he fled to Brazil in 2004 with the help of sympathizers — among them, he said, French intelligence agents.
In 2007, Battisti was arrested in Rio de Janeiro and transferred to the Brasilia jail.
Lula’s decision leaves a diplomatic headache for his successor, Dilma Rousseff, who takes over from Saturday.
But there was little chance of her going back on Lula’s decision.
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.