Devil's advocate: The world's most notorious lawyer defends himself

Harold Shipman, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Ian Brady – his client list reads like a roll-call of infamy. But now, in his most daring case yet, the controversial Giovanni di Stefano is fighting for his reputation. Peter Popham gets under his surprisingly thin skin

Quick quiz: what two things do the following people have in common: Ian Brady, Harold Shipman, Jeremy Bamber, Nicholas van Hoogstraten and Saddam Hussein? Answer: whether alive or dead, they are all notoriously bad people. And all have been legally represented, or so we are told, by Giovanni di Stefano.

The Italian lawyer with the chirpy Cockney accent and a weakness for villains has been creeping up on our national life for a number of years, and if he's not quite a household name yet, he pops up in the red-tops practically every week. And always in the same frame: bringing to our attention a new and surprising twist – unconfirmed by any other source – in the tale of yet another infamous bad hat.

This weekend, for example, the Sunday Mirror revealed on page seven that "Veteran crimelord Patrick "Dutchy" Holland could land a €500,000 (£400,000) compensation claim after key evidence was not disclosed at his recent kidnap trial." Dutchy's lawyer, Di Stefano, said his client was "over the moon" according to the paper.

Two days earlier, various papers quoted Di Stefano as claiming that train robber Ronnie Biggs "could be released on parole as early as July of next year". In the Daily Mirror, he continued: "Mr Biggs is just ecstatic. There's light at the end of the tunnel for him now."

Five days before that, the Daily Star Sunday reported him saying that "his client" Gary Glitter "is free to live wherever he wants" after he returns to the UK in August. Headline, "BEWARE: this man may soon be living near you".

And now, presumably in the few hours each week when he is not busy filling the tabloids with news about other people, he's turning the spotlight on himself. For he has decided to take on the might of Wikipedia in the courts because of what the free online encyclopaedia says about him. And not for some trifling sum: €50m (about £40m) is the amount he wants for the defamation he says he has suffered at the website's hands. If he wins, he could put Wikipedia out of business. Yet the action seems a tad drastic, given the innocuous nature of what the site, at the time of writing, has to say about him.

"Giovanni di Stefano (born 1955) is an Italian European lawyer," it begins.

"He is based in Italy, but frequently works as a legal advocate in the United Kingdom, amongst other places...He has gained the nickname 'the Devil's advocate' in the UK media for defending 'some of the country's most notorious villains' and for his comment that he would 'defend Adolf Hitler or Satan.' He was a business associate of Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan (Zeljko Raznatovic) and was one of the defence team in the trial of Saddam Hussein."

The entry is prefaced by the note, "This article is being considered for deletion in accordance with Wikipedia's deletion policy."

So I call Di Stefano on his Italian mobile to make an appointment, to discuss the case, and his cheeky-chappy London accent lights up the phone line. Immediately, we're into Devil's Advocate territory. I mention that there is some uncertainty about when I can come and see him, because perhaps the paper will send me to Burma, but I don't know if the Burmese will grant me a visa.

"Perhaps I can help you there," says Di Stefano, "as the head of the regime General Than Shwe is a friend of mine."

There follows a brief dumbstruck pause at my end. "You really think you could help me get a visa?" I reply.

"I don't see why not, General Than Shwe is my close friend!"

The Burma trip is deferred, so a week later I make my way, at the appointed time, to his club, Antico Tiro a Volo in Parioli, Rome's diplomatic quarter in the north of the city. It's a former clay-pigeon-shooting establishment for the Roman nobility on the top of a hill. There is an open-air pool, a spreading lawn looking down over the Tiber to the countryside beyond, a light and airy club house. It's a fabulous place.

My subject is sitting on a couch in the club house talking on his mobile phone to a client who seems to be on trial for murdering his wife. He is saying, "We know you didn't murder your wife but we've got to prove it." I feel this is a conversation that should be taking place in private, but Di Stefano seems happy for me to eavesdrop.

Giovanni di Stefano is a short, balding, bull-headed man in linen jacket and chinos and with a small, tight mouth squashed up under his nose. His shoulders are hunched up into his neck and as he walks he swivels them from side to side, like a kid pretending to be a tough guy.

We move out to a table in the garden at the photographer's request while he talks about the client who may or may not have killed his wife, but probably did because, "Ninety-nine per cent of the time the UK police get it right."

"What's the percentage in Italy?"

"Well you don't go to jail in Italy so it don't really matter."

It's true that the rich and well-connected rarely end up in jail in Italy. In England, as he says, this is not the case. "Stonehouse did seven years. Aitken. Archer." This happens, he says, when "the Establishment has made you an objective. I've been an objective. I probably still am an objective."

Di Stefano has also spent some considerable time in jail, as I feel obliged to remind him. He was convicted of fraud on 18 March 1986 following a 78-day trial at the Old Bailey.

Sentencing him to five years in jail, Judge Anthony Lewisohn described him as "one of nature's fraudsters... a swindler without scruple or conscience." "No. That's not correct," he snaps. "It's not true. I did nine months at HMP Norwich. Only to be acquitted. Only to be acquitted and vindicated and to receive a substantial amount of money in compensation as well."

This is very much in line with his Wikipedia entry, which states, "...Di Stefano was convicted after a 78-day trial and was jailed for five years though the BBC reports that Di Stefano has stated that this was then quashed on the second appeal but that 'a sense of injustice remains, making each victory against the system a sweet revenge.' The charges were for conspiracy to obtain property by deception and fraudulent trading."

So what is his beef with Wikipedia? Unlike many of the encyclopaedia's other entries, the article for Giovanni di Stefano is littered with references, bends over backwards to be fair, and has none of those stern comments about the entry needing to be improved. "Well it's very simple. I have no problems with whatever is written about me, whether it's true, whether it's false. It doesn't change anything in my life. I still have a beautiful home, I have a private plane, I still have my clients – it makes no difference. I would be worried if it took one euro out of my bank account, then there would be a problem...

"I presume that when you do this article – of which probably 70 per cent will be misinterpreted, reworded in a way to make me look bad – you'll put your name on it. That's all I ask for. I don't care what people write, the only thing I insist on is that they put their name" – his voice suddenly goes squeaky – "to it. Nothing wrong with that is there?"

This matters, he says, because if there is no name, there is no accountability. Defamation is a criminal offence in Italy, unlike in Britain, and if a defamatory piece of writing is also unsigned that is an aggravante – an aggravating factor.

For these reasons, Giovanni di Stefano says, he only sues for defamation in Italy. But I still don't understand why he is taking this action: minutes earlier he'd said, "I have no problems with whatever is written about me." So I ask him: "What is your problem with the Wikipedia entry being negative?"

"It's unsigned. I have a problem with people not signing and being cowards. Probably I wouldn't even sue them, what do I care? The worse the article you write about me, the more clients I get. Because clients that I deal with don't want a good person. They want a person who they believe has got away with something, because if he can get away with it himself, he might be able to get away with it for them. If they're guilty."

Suddenly he changes tack and he's on to other pending defamation cases he wants me to know about. "I mean The Independent's written shit articles about me, shit, you've got Jim Cusack in court in a few months' time from the [Sunday] Independent in Ireland. I sued him for defamation and he's up in court in Rome... And here you go to prison for defamation. Don't ponce about here with – I'm not interested in your money: I want you to PAY. If you write your name down and it's so outrageous, I'm going to sue you... I'm not looking for money. I'm looking, er, er, for vendetta."

I feel disturbed: there is deep confusion in what he's saying. On the one hand he is going after Wikipedia because it's anonymous, and that's a question of principle; but then in the same breath he brings in Jim Cusack from the Irish publication the Sunday Independent, and it's obvious from his malign tone that he is bitterly looking forward to Mr Cusack being banged up. And the same fate will be in store for me, he implies, if I am so reckless as to follow in Cusack's footsteps.

I have never been threatened by an interviewee before. It's an unpleasant sensation. But then I have never before interviewed someone who has been reported as saying he would represent Satan in court because "his side of the story has never really been heard".

The nasty moment passes. We move on to other subjects. Whatever his obsessions, Di Stefano has no shortage of hinterland. There's Slobodan Milosevic, for whom he says he was an adviser. We got on to this because I was curious about his relationship with the Burmese dictator General Than Shwe.

"I didn't say I represent him," he corrected. "I said I know him. And quite well." "Would you mind telling me about your relationship with him?"

"One adviser. Since 1998; 1997 I think. It's obvious why and how. When you are in the world of Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein – what we tried to form was a body of countries that were under sanctions, that would trade with each other. It was a pretty good idea." That was how he became involved with General Than Shwe – Burma as latest putative member of the Non-Aligned Axis of Evil. Nothing came of it, however, because "the Mynanmar Republic has no strategic value other than rubber".

The ignorance of this remark leaves me momentarily lost for words. I say, "They've got huge quantities of jade, teak, oil, gas..."

"Do you really need teak, do you really need jade?" he counters.

Di Stefano has founded a political party, the Radical Party of Great Britain. Its website is adorned with photos of Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the London Eye. "WE are dedicated to maintaining and enhancing Great Britain," it declares. "WE are neither a 'left' nor a 'right' party. WE represent reasonable, tolerant yet stern and protective values in Great Britain..." It doesn't give much of an idea of the party's policies. So I ask him, what are his core political ideas?

Giovanni di Stefano says, "Do you remember the KitKat?" "The chocolate bar? I do." "And you bought it for tuppence or fourpence." "Sixpence. I can't go further back than that." "Today, when you get the KitKat, it says 'open here'. ARE WE THAT STUPID THAT WE CAN'T OPEN A PACKET OF KITKAT? If we need someone to tell us, please open the KitKat here – porca miseria," he switches to Italian, "siamo arrivati allo massimo!" "Hell's bells, we've reached the limit."

But there is more to his political thought than KitKat. Belying the "neither left nor right" claim, he goes on to declare himself an avid fan of Mussolini because "90 per cent of his policies were correct", and if his anti-Jewish policies were not so great, "the effect of the anti-Jew wasn't really felt in Italy because we didn't have that many. So there really was no problem." I suggest that it was in fact "really felt" by the thousands of Italian Jews barred from going to school, shipped off to German extermination camps, and so on. He ignores the point.

Instead, he goes on to outline his main political proposals, which include constructing huge prisons in north Africa for dumping illegal immigrants caught in Europe. He explains how he is the son of a "bloody peasant" who was taken to England aged six, as a result of which he is now rich and successful, "thanks to the English language", and but for which he would have risen no higher than a porter. "Instead, you can go to any country in the world and they know who I am. Some welcome me, some tell me to fuck off, some I wouldn't even want to go in the first place."

"I'm more dangerous than anybody else," he boasts, "because I have access to information. I also have money, and money buys you access to information and access to love. It doesn't buy you love, but it buys you access to love."

He mentions that he is one of the founding members of the wonderful club in which we are sitting, and as such owns part of it. On my way out, I examine the wooden tablet at the entrance with the names of the founders on it. His is not among them. When I raise the point later, he says he's not a founder but a "shareholder".

Perhaps so. But Giovanni di Stefano has a habit of being economical with the actualité, as I discover while rooting around in an online news archive.

Our interview had got off to a rocky start when I mentioned that he had spent years in jail. He angrily denied it, claiming the conviction was overturned on appeal. Yet that is false: in March 1986 he was sent to prison for five years for fraud, and banned for 10 years from being a company director, after trying to steal tens of thousands of pounds through cheques drawn on imaginary banks. On 27 January 1987 his appeal was dismissed. Lord Justice Stephen Brown concluded that Di Stefano's trial "revealed a very deep and wide measure of fraudulent behaviour. This was a man who was undoubtedly seeking to operate a financial fraud wherever he was able to induce people to succumb to representations skilfully made in the form of bogus financial documents."

On learning this, I make another appointment to see him – same beautiful club, same idyllic weather – and confront him with these ugly facts, which I say I will have to bring up in my piece. He says the court documents are forgeries, reminds me of journalists he claims to have sued, but points out that my position is more delicate than theirs. "You are the most vulnerable," he says, referring to the fact that I live in Italy. "You could be arrested in flagrante..."

But unfortunately for him, the documents are not forgeries: Giovanni di Stefano, who at the time used the English form of his Christian name, John, did go to jail, and he did lose his appeal. When he came out in 1988 he went to work for a London solicitor as a solicitor's clerk, but secretly removed more than £270,000 from his employer's accounts. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found that he "had perpetrated considerable fraud upon a great many people". He was barred from future employment with a solicitor.

Even his most basic claims are unreliable, it turns out. During the 1986 fraud trial, the PhD he said he had gained at Cambridge was exposed as a lie. And in 2004, Geoffrey Negus, press and public relations officer of the Law Society, said, "Giovanni di Stefano is not a solicitor, or a registered foreign lawyer, or a registered European lawyer." It's the same story in Rome. The waiters at his club politely call him "Avvocato" (lawyer), but Italy's national lawyers' register has no knowledge of him. On their list of avvocati, "DI STEFANO, Gianni" is followed immediately by "DI STEFANO, Giuseppe". Of "DI STEFANO, Giovanni" there is no trace.

So despite his intimidating bluster, I am not afraid. According to Cusack and the Sunday Independent in Ireland, no Italian legal complaint has been received from Di Stefano. And the journalist who originally revealed the truth about Di Stefano's life of crime, Martin Hannan of Scotland on Sunday, has suffered no ill consequences, either. "I have never received any writ anywhere," Hannan told me. "The last message I received from Giovanni di Stefano was 'buon natale' ('happy Christmas')."

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