Italian justice? Absurd, but no accident, says Dario Fo

The playwright has revisited the strange case of an anarchist's death. By Andrew Gumbel
Click to follow
ONCE upon a time, a left-wing anarchist flew out of the fourth- floor window of the main police station in Milan, and Dario Fo had the perfect material for his first, and most famous, hit play. Life has a funny habit of outdoing even the wildest imaginings of fiction, however, and the events that inspired Accidental Death of An Anarchist have gone on to provide Italy's Nobel Prize-winning playwright with sequel after sequel.

This past week marked a milestone both in Fo's career and the tawdry saga that has obsessed him for more than a quarter of a century - a saga that has now turned into one of post-war Italy's most notorious instances of questionable justice, similar in ways to the furore over the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six.

Fo's latest play, Marino libero! Marino e' innocente! (Free Marino! Marino Is Innocent!) premiered on national television on Wednesday ahead of a countrywide tour. On the same day, the Appeals Court in Milan refused to reopen the very case that forms the basis of Fo's new piece, a case for which three men, widely believed to be innocent, are serving jail terms of 22 years apiece.

As in Fo's play, a little historical digression is in order. The famous anarchist, Pino Pinelli, was arrested in the wake of a massive bomb that killed 16 people and injured 100 more at a bank in Milan in 1969. Although the bomb was the work of neo-fascists, initial police efforts concentrated almost exclusively on left-wing suspects. This was the darkest moment of the Cold War in Italy, and behind the various terrorist attacks by right and left lay a struggle for the country's soul in which the state played as dirty a part as anyone.

Pinelli was wrongly accused and, despite preposterous stories invented to the contrary, almost certainly dangled out of the window by his interrogators and dropped. The police commissioner in whose offices he had been held, Luigi Calabresi, was well-known for his right-wing sympathies and soon became a hate figure of singular proportions among Milan's anarchists and post-1968 revolutionary groups.

In May 1972, Calabresi was shot dead, and suspicion immediately fell on the left-wing group most outspoken in its criticism of him, Lotta Continua ("The Struggle Continues"). For years the police failed to put together a case against Lotta Continua's leaders, and it seemed that the Calabresi killing was destined to become a great Italian unsolved mystery.

Then, in 1988, came an extraordinary breakthrough. A former member of Lotta Continua, Leonardo Marino, came forward and confessed to having taken part in the policeman's murder. He named the group's erstwhile leader and deputy leader, Adriano Sofri and Giorgio Pietrostefani, as the brains behind the crime and a third man, Ovidio Bompressi, as hitman. He himself, he claimed, had driven the getaway car.

The case duly came to court, where it emerged that Marino's story was riddled with holes and inconsistencies. Before making his formal deposition to the police, he had spent three weeks negotiating terms with them - a fact that made friends of the three other accused suspect that some kind of plot had been cooked up.

No matter. After a trial compared by the eminent historian and friend of Adriano Sofri, Carlo Ginzburg, to the intimidatory, fact-bending prosecutions of the Spanish Inquisition, Sofri, Pietrostefani and Bompressi were sentenced to 22 years in jail and Marino to 11.

There followed a quite extraordinary process of appeal and counter-appeal in which the three main verdicts were upheld by the Appeals Court, thrown out by the High Court, reheard in the Appeals Court and thrown out again, reinstated in a second High Court session, upheld in yet another trial and finally confirmed as definitive by the High Court in January 1997. Sofri, Pietrostefani and Bompressi went to jail, but Marino managed to get himself acquitted in the judicial confusion and is now a free man.

Lawyers for the three incarcerated men have spent the past 14 months trying to gather new evidence - the only thing, short of a presidential pardon, that can still save them. They turned up two new witnesses and a pile of material casting further doubt on Marino's story, and duly applied to have the case reopened.

In December, they were turned down by an Assize Court and, last week, the Appeals Court said no too. That just leaves the High Court, which is due to be consulted yet again. But Sofri, for one, is not optimistic. "Someone has given the order to screw us," he said, bitterly, after Wednesday's Appeals Court ruling.

Perhaps the biggest absurdity is that almost nobody believes the three men should be in jail, but that no one can think of a way to get them out. Sofri and Pietrostefani, in particular, have distinguished track records in journalism and social work. Commissioner Calabresi's widow has said repeatedly she harbours no grudge against them. Politicians and commentators on all sides acknowledge that times have changed and that, even if the three were guilty, they no longer deserve to pay for the crimes of the past.

All of this, of course, is wonderful grist for Dario Fo's satirical mill. Marino libero! Marino e' innocente! turns out to be a characteristic mixture of burlesque monologue, political rage and incidental buffoonery - including cartoon strips, television screens and a large puppet of Marino reproached for the "120 porkies" Fo accuses him of telling.

Will it help get Sofri and the others out of jail? Fo is worried that his play, which was supposed to go out ahead of the Appeals Court ruling, not after, and nearly did not get screened at all, might actually have harmed his friends' cause. "The judges must at the very least feel embarrassed by the support these men are getting," he said. "They are afraid, afraid of my play too, because it is designed to make them look ridiculous."