Fugitives from justice in Brazil
The madness of asylum
Jan 22nd 2009 | SÃO PAULO
From The Economist print edition
Why this indulgence for a convicted killer?
WITH its extensive opportunities for committing fresh indiscretions and its giant statue of Christ extending limitless redemption, Rio de Janeiro is an attractive place in which to live as a fugitive from justice. Claude Rains elegantly hid out there in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. Ronald Biggs, having robbed a mail train in 1963, swapped a British prison for Copacabana beach—and was more envied than vilified as a result. Now Cesare Battisti, an Italian thriller-writer who was once a member of a group called Armed Proletarians for Communism, has joined the list after Brazil granted him refugee status.
Before he came to Rio, Mr Battisti enjoyed a comfortable exile in France. Italy and France have long argued, in the way only neighbours can, about the number of once-violent Italian activists who have settled in Paris. Last year the French government refused to extradite Marina Petrella, a former Red Brigades terrorist (Carla Bruni, the president’s wife, went to Mrs Petrella’s hospital bed to give her the good news). Italy’s government had hoped Brazil would be more helpful. But its protests have been met with a snort from President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the sort reserved for occasions when he thinks a more developed country is telling Brazil what to do.
Mr Battisti was convicted in absentia of killing two policemen in Italy in the late 1970s. He was also found guilty of taking part in the murder of a butcher, and of helping to plan that of a jeweller (shot in front of his 14-year-old son). Mr Battisti denies these charges, but there is little doubt in Italy that his trial was fair.
Brazil’s reasons for protecting Mr Battisti are unconvincing. The justice minister, Tarso Genro, referred to his country’s tradition of harbouring political exiles, ranging from Alfredo Stroessner, a particularly nasty ex-dictator (of Paraguay), to Olivério Medina, an ex-guerrilla (in Colombia). Now that democracy is the norm in the Americas, that tradition is anachronistic. Mr Genro also seems to think that Mr Battisti was convicted of political crimes, rather than plain murder.
Two sentiments underlie Mr Genro’s reticence. One is Brazil’s reluctance to examine its own past. Whenever the question of an inquiry into the military government of 1964-85 arises, it is quickly squashed (unlike similar demands in Argentina or Chile). The second sentiment, that of solidarity, is to be found among some members of Lula’s party who were far-left militants in the 1970s. In Italy, which lost a former prime minister to the Red Brigades and had a government adviser murdered as recently as 2002 by its imitators, attitudes are much less indulgent.