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French high court rejects extradition of former Italian left-wing militants

Italy won't be reopening chapters of its bloody “Years of Lead” era when political violence was rampant, after France's high court ruled out the extradition of 10 former left-wing militants.

(CN) — France's high court on Tuesday rejected Italy's request for the extradition of 10 former far-left militants involved in Italy's bloody chapter of political violence from the late 1960s to the 1980s.

Finding they faced unfair trials in Italy, France's Court of Cassation ruled out the extradition of eight men and two women convicted of terrorism in Italy for their actions in the so-called “Years of Lead” between the 1970s and 1980s.

After fleeing to France, the former militants were convicted in absentia in Italy between 1983 and 1995 of terrorist attacks, subversion of the democratic order and murder, the supreme court said.

The fugitives found shelter in France because in the 1980s then-Socialist French President Francois Mitterrand granted left-wing Italian militants, many of them members of the Red Brigades, protection from extradition on condition they renounced violence and had not been accused of bloodshed. France, though, largely refused to send back militants even if they had been found guilty of crimes in Italy.

This policy, known as the “Mitterrand Doctrine,” has long been a source of friction between the two countries. Italy wants France to hand over about 200 people, many of them connected to the Years of Lead era when violence was rampant by leftist and rightist groups. This era culminated in 1978 when Red Brigade members abducted and murdered former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro.

In April 2021, France arrested the 10 former militants, aged between 62 and 89, after Italy requested their extradition in 2020.

Among those arrested was Giorgio Pietrostefani, the leader of Lotta Continua (Constant Struggle), a militant far-left group. He was sentenced to life for his part in the killing of Milan's police chief, Luigi Calabresi, in May 1972. Calabresi was killed in retaliation for the 1969 death of an innocent railway worker and anarchist bombing suspect, Giuseppe Pinelli, according to ANSA, an Italian news agency.

Last June, though, a French appeals court ruled against extradition because it argued that the former militants would not be given a chance to defend themselves under Italian law after having been convicted in absentia.

Also, the appellate court found extradition would unlawfully violate their right to a family life because the former militants had established solid lives in France and cut ties with Italy. Nearly all the former radicals have lived in France between 25 and 40 years, the high court noted.

The appellate court said extradition would violate the European Convention on Human Rights. Parisian prosecutors asked the Court of Cassation to overturn that decision.

But the supreme court said the lower court's reasons for dismissing the extradition requests were “sufficient.”

The ruling denying Pietrostefani's extradition also cited his age, 79, and his poor health after a string of operations, ANSA said. Pietrostefani was sentenced in Italy to 22 years in prison for his role in Calabresi's murder.

Italy also sought the extradition of former Red Brigade members Marina Petrella, Roberta Cappelli and Sergio Tornaghi. They have all been sentenced to life in prison in Italy for taking part in various murders and kidnappings.

The court's ruling is a blow to Italy's right-wing government led by far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who, like other Italian politicians, has blasted France for not extraditing the former militants.

Italy's justice minister, Carlo Nordio, said he accepted the supreme court's ruling but expressed disappointment. Nordio was a prosecutor who fought leftist and rightist militants during the Years of Lead.

“I experienced those dramatic years as a prosecutor in the first person and today my first emotional thought can only be addressed to all the victims of that bloody season and their families, who have waited for years, together with the entire country, for an answer from French justice,” he said, according to ANSA.

Citing a plea from the son of Calabresi, the murdered police chief, Nordio said those who've avoided extradition should now speak about their actions and “feel the need to face up to their responsibilities and have the courage to contribute to the truth.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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