In Italy, he’s a convicted murderer, alleged terrorist and international fugitive responsible for four killings in the 1970’s during his time with the radical Armed Proletarians for Communism group in his home country.
In Brazil, Battisti is a political refugee - and as of the past 24 hours - free to walk the streets.
Yes, we are talking about the same man here.
It’s a long and complicated story, Google him or read here for more background. But the bottom line is that Battisti was arrested in Brazil in 2007 because he had an international arrest warrant in his name. Italy has been pressuring Brazil to extradite him, but Brazil has refused.
In 2008, then Minister of Justice Tarso Genro granted Battisti political refugee status, effectively blocking Italy’s extradition attempt. Italy was furious and appealed, and Battisti has been in jail in Brazil ever since while the case got sorted out.
Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that Battisti should be extradited, but also said, constitutionally, the ‘final judgment’ would be made by then-President Lula da Silva.
On Lula’s last day in office, Dec 31, 2010, he ruled that Battisti would not be extradited – causing a firestorm in Rome and a wave of appeals by Italian lawyers.
All the while Battisti remained in jail near Brasilia, waiting a final outcome.
And late on Wednesday, Brazil’s Supreme made the dramatic, double-ruling, upholding Lula’s non-extradition order also authorising Battisti to be released from jail.
So why has the Brazilian government felt the need to enter this fight with Italy? To effectively protect someone who isn’t even their own citizen? It certainly would have been a lot easier to put him on the next Alitalia flight back to Rome and be done with it.
So what is going on here? What’s going on in Brazil with Battisti? It’s complicated, but I think it boils down to three things:
1-Battisti was arrested in Brazil, so this country’s leaders felt they had the right to decide his fate based on their laws and their own institutions. It was decided (albeit with controversy here) that he qualified for political refugee status in this county, so that is what was granted to him. The deciders in Brazil saw no legal premise to extradite him and the government felt no international laws or norms were broken or jeopardized. So in this sense, it was very much a Brazilian decision. Sovereignty is a word used a lot to describe it here.
2-What happened in 2011 can be traced back to the 1970’s. That was the decade that Battisti was part of the leftist PAC movement in Italy, and was also the same time frame a young union leader named ‘Lula’ was leading his own leftist, workers movement in Brazil later transformed into the Workers Party. Lula was jailed back then, but as we all now know, he went on to become Brazil’s most popular modern day president, leaving office last year with almost 80% approval ratings.  Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, was also jailed back in her youth for her involvement in leftist movements under the military dictatorship regime. Many of the same old leftists in Brazil who fought back in the 70’s saw in Battisti a similar worldview. They were all jailed, called communists, and sometimes terrorists. Many of these same people now hold high positions in Brazilians congress and government and had the ear of Lula, and basically told the president something like this: “Battisti might not be as bad as the Italian’s say he is. He could have been one of us.” In short, Battisti had powerful interests with key connections lobbying on his behalf in Brazil. A congressional commission of supporters visited him in jail. They were open about their support of him. It was still a political ‘hot potato’ in Brazil. It was no coincidence Lula waited until his last day in office to decide on Battisti’s fate. He didn’t want this issue to have to be dealt with on Rousseff’s watch. Now, when Rome calls asking Rousseff how she could have let this happen, she can reply in earnest, “Lula ruled when he was president, and I have no control over the Supreme Court. My hands were tied.” This was a deliberate strategy to reduce political fallout against Rousseff. Battisti had a powerful lobby inside Brazil.
3-Lastly, this was an issue of realpolitik – Brazil taking into consideration practical considerations and consequences. Brazil has emerged as a diplomatic and economic giant. She is a country of the future in every way. Italy, most would agree, is an ageing, colonial power with waning influence. The unspoken truth here is this: There is nothing Italy can do to substantially punish Brazil either economically or diplomatically. Already Italy has said they won’t break off economic ties with Brazil. Today, the world of 2011 is much different than 1980: Italy probably needs Brazil more than Brazil needs Italy. That’s the cold, hard fact. Right, wrong? You decide. This is not to say Brazil is gaining anything from refusing to extradite Battisti (There were no Brazilian’s celebrating on the streets Battisti’s release from jail many think Brazil set a bad precedent by taking on this issue). But Brazil certainly isn’t losing anything in realpolitik terms. There is already talk apparently inside Italy of trying to pressure the government to boycott the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in protest. I have no idea if this will happen. But it might be symbolic sign that this is all really Italy has left to pressure Brazil: Boycotting a sporting event. Times have changed.
Just a couple hours after Brazil’s highest court ruled in favour of Battisti his lawyers wasted no time.
It was just a few minutes after midnight on Thursday on a dry night in Brasilia when a black car with tinted windows drove out of a penitentiary.
A cluster of cameramen and journalists waited outside the gate, jockeying for position.
As the car whizzed by, it slowed down slightly and the passenger in the back seat rolled down the window just enough for the journalists to snap photographs.
Inside was Cesare Battisti. A slight smile on his face.
He made no comment. The journalists tried to crowd the window, but the car didn’t stop enough and within a flash was gone.
After almost five years in a Brazilian jail, Battisti was a free man.