Rome Stories: Gripped by crime and punishment

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Rome has this week been convulsed by arguments over whether a war criminal must remain locked up until death or be allowed to go home to die.

It's an emotive issue because the man, former SS-Hauptsturmführer [Captain] Erik Priebke, was responsible for one of the worst Nazi atrocities in Italy.

On 22 March 1944, six months after Italy's surrender, a partisan bomb exploded in Rome, killing 33 SS policemen. Within hours Priebke was rounding up victims for punishment.

Most were political prisoners; 77 were Italian Jews. They were ferried out to catacombs near the ancient Via Appia. In all 335 were killed and buried in a mass grave. Priebke fled to Argentina after the war, but in 1996 he was extradited to Italy. He used the "obeying orders" defence, and admitted killing two of the victims; a military tribunal sentenced him to life. Because of his age - he is now 90 - he was allowed to serve the sentence under detention in Rome at the house of a supporter.

A fierce debate is now under way between those who want Priebke sent home, and Italian Jews who say, in the words of their spokesman Riccardo Pacifici, that "a just society requires that unrepentant, convicted assassins end their days in detention".

The issue has come to a head because the question of whether another well-known prisoner should be let out is in the news nearly every day. Adriano Sofri was the leader of a far-left group in the Seventies and is serving life for ordering the murder of a policeman. The case is murky, and many believe Sofri is innocent. He has also become one of Italy's most prolific journalists.

Given that the two men are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, Sofri's opinion of Priebke was, on the face of it, surprising. In Friday's La Repubblica he wrote of the reaction of a fellow inmate when told that he was to be set free. "Astonishment spread across the man's fat face. His eyes filled with tears, his body seemed to go limp ..." Of Priebke he wrote: "He is a man: old, harmless and superfluous ... I would prefer him to go so he can die in his own home." After more than six years in jail, Sofri cuts through the claptrap to the fundamental issue: a simple question of humanity.

It was too good a story to check. This week Italian papers ran the astonishing news that Silvio Berlusconi was to fly to Iraq, to appear live during the grand finale of the San Remo Song Festival, fraternising in Nasiriya with Italian peacekeepers.

Berlusconi's love of music is well known, and this year he appears to have got Italy's most popular songfest in his clutches. The new artistic director, Tony Renis, is a Berlusconi crony (Berluscrony?) With millions glued to the programme, what better platform for a stunning political coup? But it's all rubbish, we were fiercely informed. What a shame. It has that surreal Berlusconi ring about it.

Spring is in the air, and one of Rome's wonderful survivors, the circular 1st-century BC Temple of Hercules Victor, has had a spruce up. Oleander bushes clogged with rubbish have been replaced by a rose garden. The temple, known to most Romans as the Tempio di Vesta, survived the Middle Ages intact because it was used as a church. Mussolini deconsecrated it and re-designated it an ancient monument, one of the many disconcertingly sensible acts of the old monster.