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Kidnap makes an ass of Italy's ransom law

DURING HIS eight months of captivity at the hands of Sardinian bandits, Giuseppe Soffiantini was chained to a tree in the woods, had both his ears severed, was given only a fraction of his usual heart medicine and lived off stale bread and spring water. So when the 62-year-old industrialist from the northern city of Brescia was released on a lonely roadside outside Florence on Monday night, he, his family and the whole of Italy breathed a large sigh of relief.

It has been a relief tinged with controversy, however, as the Italian state examines one of the most difficult kidnapping cases of recent years and the apparent failure of its idiosyncratic legislation to deal with the problem.

In many ways, Mr Soffiantini's case is an illustration of how not to handle a kidnap. An attempt to rescue him back in October ended in a shoot- out in which one undercover agent was killed. Subsequent police searches through the brushland of southern Tuscany were sabotaged because someone in the police kept tipping off the media. Right up to the end, negotiations for Mr Soffiantini's release were hampered by the notoriously inefficient Italian post, which delivered ultimatums well after the deadlines laid down in them had passed.

Most controversial of all has been an Italian law which bars the victim's family from paying any ransom. The idea of the law, which was passed in 1991, is to deter bandits from undertaking kidnaps in the first place, and to leave responsibility for the negotiation process with cool-headed professionals working for the state rather than over-emotional next-of- kin.

But in Mr Soffiantini's case, the mechanism broke down. As family members repeatedly complained, the restriction on their assets only prolonged his agony as they were obliged to raise money from friends. Despite capturing four members of the kidnap gang, the state failed either to sniff out Mr Soffiantini's prison, or to scare the bandits into lowering their ransom demand significantly.

Earlier this month, the state was forced to admit defeat and a magistrate issued a special order unfreezing the Soffiantini family's assets. The ransom money - 5 billion lire (about pounds 2m) - was delivered by Mr Soffiantini's best friend last week in two suitcases.

As Mr Soffiantini, looking haggard and grey but otherwise in good physical condition, was welcomed back to the bosom of his family, it became clear that the law had been played for a fool and that the worst kind of message had been sent to the Sardinian gangs - keep your nerve, hold on to your hostage and you will get your money in the end.

"Since the law was passed ... the length of time victims have spent in captivity has doubled and the consequences for the credibility of the state have been insidious," the crime expert Beppe D'Avanzo wrote in the Corriere della Sera.

Mr Soffiantini is not the first kidnap case to give rise to such problems. Ten-year-old Fourak Hassan, kidnapped a few years ago, had to be bailed out with state money after months of heart-rending headlines. But this is the first case in which the family's assets have been made available to pay the ransom.

The Justice Minister, Giovanni Maria Flick, insisted yesterday that the law was working in that the number of kidnap victims has fallen sharply since 1991 (just a handful a year, compared with 50 or 60 in the 1970s). But even he said some amendments would be necessary to tighten controls on the ransom money and toughen sentences for kidnappers.