Fugitive Italian ex-militant held in Bolivia; faces extradition

Former far-left Italian militant Cesare Battisti after he was arrested in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, late Saturday. — AFP

BRASILIA — Cesare Battisti, a former Italian communist militant sought by Rome for four murders in the 1970s, has been arrested after an international police squad tracked him to Bolivia where he faces extradition to Brazil and then likely 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 (2003-10), who is now in prison for corruption.

“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.

Battisti, 64, was arrested late Saturday in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Brazilian police sources told Brazilian media. Italian foreign ministry sources confirmed the arrest.

“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 foreign 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 foreign ministry sources, Battisti was spotted “with certainty” in Santa Cruz last week and an operation was prepared with local authorities.

Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported the fugitive, wearing a false beard and moustache, was snatched in the street Saturday afternoon 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 neighborhoods of the city, the paper reported.

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.

Italian authorities on Sunday 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 foreign ministry source 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.”

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 jeweler who died in a shootout which left his 14-year-old son in a wheelchair. — AFP