Novelist wanted on terrorism charges disappears in France

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The Independent Online

An Italian terrorist-turned-novelist, who has been at the centre of a row between Paris and Rome, has gone missing after failing to make his weekly visit to a French police station.

Cesare Battisti, 50, convicted by an Italian court of murdering four people during his years as a far-left terrorist in the 1970s, reinvented himself as a successful thriller writer after settling in France in 1990.

To the indignation of many French intellectuals and left-wing politicians, in June a French court decided to reverse previous rulings and order his extradition to Italy. Mr Battisti appealed to the highest French court, the Cour de Cassation, and was awaiting a decision on whether it would reopen his case.

A warrant has been issued for his arrest. Friends and supporters suggested Mr Battisti's "mental state" had disintegrated in recent weeks. They said they were concerned for his safety. Other friends hinted that he had fled to another country.

A simmering argument between France and Italy flared again yesterday, with right-wing Italian politicians threatening to organise a demonstration in Paris if he was not found soon.

The Battisti affair - and the cases of a dozen other former Italian terrorists living in France - has been among the main obstacles in attempts to create a "single judicial space" in the European Union. In the 1980s, the late French president François Mitterrand declared France to be an open house for former terrorists of the Italian far left, but not the far right, as long as they promised to give up violence. Italian authorities originally appeared to accept this de facto amnesty but Italian courts and politicians have now begun to demand the return of the most high-profile exiles.

Mr Battisti was in a terror group called Armed Proleterians for Communism in the so-called "years of lead" in Italy in the 1970s, when extremists of right and left claimed violence was the only way to break open an immobile, corrupt and undemocratic Italian political system. He escaped from an Italian prison in 1981, settled in South America then claimed asylum in France. In 1991, he was sentenced to life imprisonment by an Italian court after he was convicted in his absence of being part a terrorist cell that committed four murders.

From 1992, Mr Battisti began to earn his living by writing thrillers with titles that include Clothes of the Shadows and Last Bullets, broadly based on his life as a terrorist. He has written a dozen books which have been critically acclaimed in France and have sold well in both France and Italy. His new-found status as a writer, and his continued commitment to causes of the left, have won Mr Battisti wide support among French intellectuals and mainstream parties of the French left.

This has infuriated Italian politicians and newspapers of right and left, who say Mr Battisti should return to a new trial for his alleged crimes. President Mitterrand's amnesty may have been justified in the 1980s, the Italian critics say, but the Italian political and judicial system has been cleaned up since. There is no justification now, they say, for one EU country refusing to return an alleged murderer sought by one of its partners.