Former Italian activist Cesare Battisti caught in Bolivia after a life on the run
The left-wing militant and thriller writer sought refuge in France, Mexico and Brazil after being convicted for murder
Paris — Convicted as a murderer for bloodshed in the 1970s, former left-wing Italian activist Cesare Battisti, who was caught in Bolivia, has spent almost four decades on the run, detailing his experiences in a string of acclaimed thrillers.
His capture at the weekend was the latest twist in a near 40-year legal and diplomatic saga worthy of the kind of autobiographical novel the 64-year-old made his speciality.
Convicted in absentia to life behind bars by an Italian court, he has spent years on the road, travelling from Mexico to France and Brazil, despite regular threats of extradition.
Battisti was convicted by an Italian court in 1993 and sentenced to life for involvement in four murders in the 1970s when he was a left-wing activist.
Though he admits being part of an armed revolutionary group, he has always denied responsibility for any deaths.
But Rome remains determined to punish one of the last figures from Italy’s so-called Years of Lead, a decade of violent turmoil that began in the late 1960s and saw dozens of deadly attacks by hardline left-wing and right-wing groups.
Communist Catholic family
A softly spoken apologist who can tirelessly argue in multiple languages, Battisti was born in southern Rome on December 18 1954 into a Catholic family of communists.
In the late 1970s, after spending several brief stints in prison for minor offences, he joined the Armed Proletarians for Communism (PAC), a radical left-wing group that staged a string of robberies and attacks.
“Aspiring to change society with arms is idiotic,” he said in an interview in 2011. “But listen, at the time everyone was packing a gun. There were guerillas all over the world, Italy was in a pre-revolutionary situation.”
Arrested in Milan in 1979 and sentenced for belonging to an armed gang, Battisti managed to escape from prison near Rome two years later, fleeing first to France and then to Mexico in 1982.
Following a pledge by France’s then socialist president Francois Mitterand not to extradite former Italian activists who had turned their back on their past, Battisti returned to France in 1990 and began his writing career.
Three years later, a Milan court convicted him in absentia of personally killing two Italian police officers, participating in the murder of a butcher, and planning an attack on a jeweller who died in a shoot-out that left his 14-year-old son in a wheelchair.
But Battisti has denied having any blood on his hands over the four murders, which took place in 1978 and 1979.
Rebuilding a life in Paris
Like hundreds of other Italians who were politically active in the 1970s, Battisti rebuilt his life in Paris, where he stayed until 2004.
Working as a caretaker to make ends meet, he began writing thrillers, publishing more than a dozen of them, many with a strongly autobiographical bent focusing on the exile and redemption of former hardline activists.
In 2004, the government of Jacques Chirac decided to end Mitterand’s policy and extradite Battisti back to Italy.
Despite the support of several high-profile figures, including best-selling crime novelist Fred Vargas and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, Battisti’s legal appeals were rejected.
But he skipped bail and fled to Brazil using a false identity with the help, he later claimed, of the French secret services. But after staying under the radar for three years, he was arrested in 2007 in Rio de Janeiro.
He then spent four years in custody while his fate was debated by politicians and the courts. At one point he even began a hunger strike, insisting he would “prefer to die in Brazil than return to Italy”.
In January 2010, just hours before he left office, Brazil’s left-wing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva decided to reject an Italian request for his extradition.
Eighteen months later, Battisti was freed after Brazil’s supreme court upheld Lula’s decision in a move that sparked fury in Italy.
After his release in June 2011, Brazil gave him permanent residency and he moved to the small coastal city of Cananeia where he has continued to write.
In 2015, he married his partner Priscila and the pair have a five-year-old son, Raul.
But his life has been subjected to the shifting decisions of Brazil’s judiciary, with a judge once again ordering his extradition in 2015, and two years later, he was picked up at the border with Bolivia as he was trying to cross.
During Brazil’s recent election campaign, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro pledged to “immediately” extradite Battisti if elected, prompting the fugitive to once again disappear.
But he was found on Saturday in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and, once again, faces the prospect of extradition to Italy.